Crenshaw quarterback Ajene Harris has taken his game to another level a… (Patrick T. Fallon / For the…)
There are so many issues about playing football in the City Section. No practice on Thanksgiving ... head coaches whose stipend is a meager $2,811 a season ... no chance to play a championship game in a major venue ... a 64% graduation rate in Los Angeles Unified schools.
Yes, there are obstacles to overcome, and that's why Saturday's 7 p.m. Division I championship game at East Los Angeles College between Harbor City Narbonne (13-0) and Los Angeles Crenshaw (12-1) deserves game-of-the-year status.
Rarely have two head coaches been more appreciative about what their teams have accomplished than Narbonne's Manuel Douglas and Crenshaw's Robert Garrett.
"I'm so proud of them," Douglas said.
"It's the most enjoyable season I've had," Garrett said.
Narbonne has brought rare respect to the City Section with victories over Santa Ana Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly and Gardena Serra, all playing for Southern Section championships this weekend. Crenshaw, down to 29 players on its roster and no De'Anthony Thomas, knocked off Westlake Village Oaks Christian early in the season and has routed every playoff opponent.
The winner of Saturday's game will receive a CIF regional playoff berth, and for once, there won't be anyone questioning the City champion's supposedly weak schedule, because the teams have proved they are two of the best in Southern California.
I've seen these two teams multiple times, and their rosters are filled with college-level talent. But the real reason coaches are thrilled with how the season has unfolded is the players' response when they're challenged.
They have listened to their coaches and grown up before their eyes. They have shown unselfishness, leadership, toughness and a refusal to settle for being ordinary.
"They've bought into everything and taught us to be better educators and better communicators," Douglas said of his players.
One of Douglas' success stories is senior linebacker Marquis Lomax. He leads the Gauchos' outstanding defense with more than 100 tackles, but because he's 5 feet 10, college recruiters haven't offered him a scholarship.
"Everyone sees him and says he's phenomenal," Douglas said. "I'm most proud about how he brings it week in and week out. He doesn't pout about it when he sees college scouts fawn over [fellow linebacker] Keishawn Bierria. He uses it to motivate him."
Then there's senior running back Tony Gates. He has rushed for 1,069 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"He never started a game until this season," Douglas said. "He used to have a fumbling problem. He worked so hard in the off-season and in the weight room. He has developed so much as a player and person, and now he's a 14-game starter."
Crenshaw's Garrett is known as being hard to please, so when he raves about his team's attitude and work ethic, it speaks loudly about what it has achieved.
"No one has reservations about why and how come and they understand how you're only as strong as your weakest link," Garrett said.
If there's one player on Crenshaw's team who has raised his game to a different level, it's junior quarterback Ajene Harris. Last season, he was playing for tiny Animo South, a charter school in South Los Angeles.
Last week in the City semifinals against Venice, he completed 18 of 33 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-10 victory.
He's going up against Narbonne's Troy Williams, the reigning City player of the year. On Dec. 14, Williams will graduate early and head off to play for the University of Washington.
Don't ask who's going to win Saturday, because my answer is both teams will leave the field winners for putting together seasons and reaching accomplishments that have made their coaches, fans and parents proud.