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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

While high school playoff games are great, there's so much more

Venice Coach Angelo Gasca is still looking for a championship, but he is thrilled to be making a difference in the community.

November 28, 2013|Eric Sondheimer

It's one of the biggest weekends of the high school football season. Teams are one playoff win away from advancing to the championship game, so the focus will be on results.

But each time I look out onto a field and see players surrounded by their coaches, it's a reminder how football is still only a game and there are far more important lessons being taught.

At Venice High, where Coach Angelo Gasca graduated in 1978, the chance to win a City Section Division I championship remains an elusive goal, but it's not what keeps him coming back year after year.

"I love my community," he said. "I'm a product of this community. This is where I've grown up, and this is where I think I can make the most difference."

Gasca, who turned 53 last week, remembers what football did for him.

"It kept me from joining gangs and running the streets," he said. "I had a reason to not let my teammates and coaches down. When I look at these kids, I see myself."

A defining moment came in the summer of 1975. Gasca was 14 and enrolled in a football class taught by the head coach, Al Dellinger.

"I didn't graduate from middle school," he said. "The football coach knew my brothers had been gang members. I hadn't been going to class. He pulled me aside and told me if I didn't start coming he was going to kick me out of the football class. I made a decision that day to stop that path and get on another path."

Gasca became a quarterback for Venice and got into coaching. He was an assistant for 17 years. At one point, he had college coaching ambitions, serving as an assistant at CW Post in 1993 and Northern Illinois in 1995. When the Northern Illinois staff he was part of got fired, he returned to Venice as a junior varsity coach in 1996.

"The best thing I did was leave and come back," he said. "I had a chance to grow up and mature."

Gasca, in his 14th season as head coach, beams when talking about former players making a difference in their community.

Byron Ellis, a running back from 2003, is in medical school on his way to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Justin Clayton, a linebacker who graduated in 2002, is a lawyer. Wale Forrester, a former defensive back, is an EMT in Oakland. His brother, Mesiphin, another former defensive back, is a fireman in Seattle.

"If I have been any way a small part of their success . . .then I'm the luckiest guy," Gasca said. "How can I find a better job?"

In 1988, Gasca was an assistant coach for a team coming off a 2-8 season. The starting quarterback was 5-foot-8 Eddie Soto. The players had signed a commitment letter to work hard in the off-season. Gasca, the quarterback coach, played catch with Soto almost every day trying to encourage him.

"He kept me focused and on the path I needed to go," Soto said.

Venice finished 8-2. Soto became a detective in the Santa Monica Police Department and the father of five daughters; two of whom are now playing for Venice's softball team.

"I have 13 sisters and brothers, but Angelo is like the 14th," he said.

Venice is 10-2 this season. Standing in the way once again Friday night in a semifinal is Crenshaw (8-4), which routed the Gondoliers, 59-10, in a semifinal last year.

Gasca is a proud, competitive coach. He believes his team will be ready for a better showing this time at Crenshaw. But he also understands that win or lose, there's a bigger picture for everyone involved.

"I think the lessons they learn as part of a team are as valuable as they get from a book," he said.

Asked how much things have changed since his days as a high school player in the 1970s, Gasca said, "When we played football back in the day, if our coach asked us to run through a wall, we'd try to run through a wall.

"We live in a different society, a different culture. But kids are inherently the same. Like me, they're looking for a way to change their life. Kids want to work hard. They want to be pushed. They want discipline. They want to be successful."

So everyone enjoy the fun and frenzy of Friday night football, but remember there's a lesson behind the madness.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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