City Section football programs on the rise with rebuilds

The Hamilton High Yankees trudged across brown, fibrous grassy slopes and went to work on their school’s stained baseball field.

They were all in uniform. Not the traditional Yankee green. Her work attire in the July sun consisted of the mandatory plain white T-shirt and black shorts. They would not receive their Hamilton uniforms until after they got through Final Cut Day on the 25th.

“Let them earn the Hammy colors,” said head coach Norris Milton. “I try to be proud of the school.”

In recent years, this pride has been tested for many football programs in the Los Angeles City Section. COVID-19 dealt an almost crippling blow to schools already struggling with universal enrollment and student participation in sports. Teams like Manual Arts and Crenshaw, who once fielded more than 50 players at the varsity, can now barely muster 25.

“In the next five years, if nothing changes,” said Jefferson coach Jason Grant, “I don’t see city football existing.”

Jefferson High football coach Jason Grant.

Jefferson High football coach Jason Grant.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

But it’s not dead yet.

In recent years, a new wave of coaches has entered the Los Angeles Unified School District — coaches who were formed in the city, who are invested not only in football but in the larger community, and are trying to take pride in their programs again close.

“They’re now through this cycle of … seven-a-side, travel teams and all that,” said former Dorsey coach Paul Knox. “You kind of know the ins and outs now. And I think they will be able to get kids in there. I think you’re going to see a little revitalization of the city over the next three to four years.”

Everyone has their own philosophy for keeping city football alive.

For Milton, the key is finding rough diamonds.

Maybe sitting in a dank athletics office, with its sticky tile floor and stray wires sticking out of the walls, wasn’t exactly what he envisioned when he was shipped from Georgia to California in 2015. He certainly didn’t expect to be named sports director during COVID-19 – just a year after he started as head football coach at Hamilton. He is fully invested.

“We’re getting more kids interested on campus,” Milton said. “That was my main focus – to really get the kids on campus wanting to play football.”

After joining the Yankees in 2019, he first met the kids on August 1 and gave them two weeks to prepare for their first game. He had 22 players. They went 2-9.

“It was a struggle,” Milton said.

Hamilton High Football Coach Norris Milton.

Hamilton High Football Coach Norris Milton.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

He increased the player count to 75 in January 2020 before COVID-19 hit. Finally, after two years, Milton’s managed to enlist 75 students again, after a surprising 9-4 record last season.

More than half of these students, Milton says, have never played soccer. He also served as a physical education teacher and had to roam Hamilton’s halls in search of talent. During the lunch break, he took to the pitch with up-and-coming junior Jason Benson and threw a football around, eventually convincing him to come out for the team.

Kids come to Hamilton for the school’s strong arts and drama programs, Milton said, not for football. But Hamilton’s enrollment is busy at about 2,500 unlike other LAUSD schools. Somewhere in these Yankee classrooms, there’s an all-city player hiding.

“They’re here — it just makes them believe what it takes to be an athlete,” Milton said. “I’m not going to say that’s the struggle, but that’s what I really want to try to find about the school.”

For Hawkins coach Ronald Coltress, it’s about building tradition.

In 2016, Hawkins, one of the most dominant programs in the City Section, had to lose all 13 wins due to eligibility violations. Coltress, unaware of the scandal, was hired as an assistant in 2017. They went 0-11. Then he inherited the reins.

“It was kind of overwhelming because I didn’t think I was ready to take on the program,” Coltress said.

Since then he has reached into an empty closet.

“It’s just like, ‘We’re Hawkins. What are we known for?’” Coltress said. “Well, they’re known for that thing [in 2016] … nothing since.”

Hawkins High football coach Ronald Coltress.

Hawkins High football coach Ronald Coltress.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

He had the minimum 18-player squad in 2020 to be eligible to play. However, last season’s 7-5 record showed promise.

When he first arrived at Hawkins, Coltress never saw alumni return to games. That’s starting to change. Former receiver Steven Romero, who graduated in 2020, is now a frequent visitor. His brothers Nicholas and Dominick are now on the team.

“Once they have a program to believe in, a school, a tradition, I think that’s how you keep the kids in control,” Coltress said.

It’s hard to see inner-city schools struggling with engagement — especially with famous programs like Crenshaw and Dorsey, Coltress said. Nevertheless, coaches across the city are committed to rebuilding.

“You can do it in these schools,” Coltress said. “You can make it at Hawkins.”

For Grant, the key is retaining talent at the youth level.

On July 16, he sat on a bench on the sidelines in a seven-a-side tournament at El Camino Real High. Jefferson came to play. Only nine players came.

“Typical LA City Section,” he murmured.

To even compete, he had to poach an incoming freshman who would start the year at junior varsity as quarterback. As he spoke, his 11-year-old son sat at the other end of the bench. Grant pointed at him.

“He would be playing quarterback today if I wasn’t playing my ninth grade quarterback,” he said. “For real.”

Last summer, Grant said he went into seven-a-side games with 11 players – and still had opposing programs trying to recruit his players, he said.

“If you have any talent, someone will listen to you,” Grant said.

When former alumnus Grant was recruited to Jefferson just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he gave the administration an ultimatum: the LA Demos youth program had to be restarted. Out of action for three years due to low turnout, it started again last season. Grant’s coaching staff is now filled to the brim with coaches involved in the demos. It’s his blueprint to encourage youth in the area to stay.

A few weeks after that failed El Camino Real tournament, Grant had signed up about two dozen players. Above the squad minimum of 18 and a lot more than the 11 at the same time last season.

At Jefferson’s first practice wearing a helmet on July 28, Grant knelt on the sidelines and tore up a few blades of grass. That groundbreaking, he explained, was the same lawn star as Romeo Doubs, now a rookie receiver with the Green Bay Packers, on which he starred.

His players go to the same halls as Doubs. Walk the same streets around Jefferson. Grant wants them to see – what’s the difference? City Section football programs on the rise with rebuilds

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