Long Beach Poly Coach Raul Lara, shown in 2008, has the Jackrabbits in the… (Los Angeles Times )
Imagine what it was like Sept. 7 to be part of the Long Beach Poly football program on the night the Jackrabbits lost to Harbor City Narbonne, 56-0, their worst defeat since 1916.
"We were all totally embarrassed," Coach Raul Lara said. "It was hard, especially because everyone was ridiculing us."
Fast forward to Friday night in the Pac-5 Division quarterfinals, when Poly upset No. 2-seeded Mission Viejo, 21-16.
The Jackrabbits are "the phoenix of high school football rising out of the ashes," Santa Margarita Coach Harry Welch said.
Forgotten, dismissed and ignored for much of the season, 18-time champion Long Beach Poly (9-3) suddenly finds itself in its normal position, playing Bellflower St. John Bosco (8-4) on Friday night at Veterans Stadium for the chance to advance to the Pac-5 championship game Dec. 1 at Angel Stadium.
"I think people need to realize this is high school football," Lara said. "These are kids, and if you get kids to believe in themselves, and with hard work, anything is possible. We had an opportunity to get better."
Except this has been anything but a normal season for the Jackrabbits, and everything goes back to the Narbonne game. The Gauchos (12-0) have proven to be one of the best teams in the state, but Poly played so poorly it created panic in Jackrabbit Nation.
Lara, though, knew what had to be done.
"Maybe it was God waking us up," he said. "This could happen to Poly. What are we going to do about it? My staff and the kids grinded it out every day."
Fans abandoned the Jackrabbits in large numbers. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Poly went back to basics, tried to become more physical and prepared for the chance at redemption during the playoffs while dominating a weak Moore League.
The Jackrabbits have returned to doing what they do best: run the ball effectively and play aggressive, physical defense.
Running backs Gerard Wicks and Manusamoa Lu'uga led the offense against Mission Viejo, and defensive backs John Smith and David Price came up with big plays.
Lara, who works full time as an intake officer for the Los Angeles County Probation Department and has been Poly's walk-on head coach since 2001, has set an example for how to behave in the face of sometimes withering criticism. The Jackrabbits have won four championships under Lara but Poly fans always expect more.
"We're talking about a public school that pays their coach $5,000 a year," he said. "Who else is going to deal with that madness? I love the kids. I came from that area.
I don't know how long I'm going to do this, but if I'm in charge, my No. 1 thing is the kids. Everyone else is talking about CIF."
Lara and the Jackrabbits found a path to rise up after hitting rock bottom. And that makes them one dangerous team in the playoffs.