South Gate quarterback Eddie Flores (5) with receiver Joseph Gonzalez. (German Cerda )
Every once in a while, there's a feel-good story in the sprawling, unpredictable Los Angeles Unified School District.
South Gate High is ground zero in a turnaround story that's picking up steam after the Rams improved to 4-0 on Friday night with a 57-46 victory over Long Beach Millikan.
"It's unbelievable," said quarterback Eddie Flores, who passed for 358 yards and five touchdowns.
South Gate hasn't had a winning season since finishing 5-5-1 in 2005. The Rams were 0-10 each in 2006 and 2007. They were 1-9 in 2008 and 2-8 in 2009.
Credit goes to first-year Coach Jose Casagran, who gave up his head coaching duties at L.A. Roosevelt in 2003 for family considerations, then was recruited by South Gate Principal German Cerda to end his self-imposed head coach retirement.
The turnaround has been quick and profound.
"He's disciplined us," Flores said. "He makes us work hard in school and makes us get good grades. It's unbelievable what he's done with the program."
Years ago, L.A. Unified principals actually cared about their sports programs. They showed up at events and had their coaches' backs. Those days are mostly over, with principals unwilling to invest time or make a commitment in the face of many other responsibilities.
Cerda, though, is a throwback to a different era. He actually believes that extracurricular activities help students focus on academics, and he has made it a priority to hire top coaches who are good teachers at a time when the job market is tough.
It has made a huge difference in the everyday lives of his student body.
"Everybody has pride now," Flores said.
South Gate isn't about to challenge Narbonne or Crenshaw for supremacy in the City Section. But the Rams just might contend for an Eastern League championship and be a factor in the Division II playoffs.
More important, Casagran has his players' attention and allegiance. They're starting to believe in him.
He put his confidence in Flores, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound senior who others didn't think could lead South Gate back. They said Flores would panic under pressure. Enter Casagran, who worked with Flores over the summer and taught him not to get down if things went bad.
So there was Flores on Friday night rallying the Rams, scrambling during tough moments and maintaining composure.
"Last year, I didn't really do good at quarterback," Flores said. "But my coach trusts me and it's paid off. I worked on being confident. All my coaches and teammates helped me keep my head up, and I had to give my all to them."
Get ready for a rough, tough, all-out rumble Friday night, when top-ranked Santa Margarita (4-0) takes on No. 4 Ventura St. Bonaventure (4-0) at Saddleback College.
St. Bonaventure Coach Todd Therrien won't be intimidated by facing Santa Margarita Coach Harry Welch, and his players aren't about to back down from the challenge of trying to defeat quarterback Johnny Stanton and his teammates.
"We're ready to take on the beast," Therrien said.
St. Bonaventure had better be ready to score some points. Santa Margarita defeated Carson on Friday, 72-0. Ryan Wolpin scored a school-record six touchdowns.