July 9, 2012

Long Beach Poly to start outside national rankings

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

The transition from a high school football program that gets the benefit of the doubt to a team that has to prove its merit on an annual basis is often slow to materialize.

For Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, it took three seasons.

The precipitous fall from grace will be punctuated by the teams' glaring absence in the upcoming Preseason RivalsHigh 100 poll -- a countdown of the top high school football teams in the country.

The still-proud - and once-formidable -- program will miss the national preseason poll for the first time since its inception in 2007. While the external expectations have changed, the players on the team maintain the same goals as the successful alumni who paved the way.

Marcus Lewis, a 6-foot 190-pound senior who figures to make an impact at linebacker or running back, said that the team is focused.

"Our goal is states," he said. "There is pressure from our community, from our peers, our teachers, everyone really.

Long Beach (Calif.) Poly is joined by nine other teams that are rankings regulars who begin the season having to work its way into the national rankings.
Allen (Texas) High
Allen has finished No. 2 nationally and has been ranked No. 1 in-season during the last five years; this season it opens a new stadium but starts at No. 16 in Texas and outside the RivalsHigh 100.
Bentonville (Ark.) High
Bentonville has won two state titles in the last four years and has played for another finishing ranked each of the last three years. This year the biggest school in Arkansas has to earn its entry again.
Denver (Colo.) Mullen
It was not long ago that Mullen was the sure-bet for the top spot in Colorado. A few talented classes lost to graduation and the running off of head coach Dave Logan has this team starting at No. 4 in Colorado and off the radar.
Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward's
St. Edward's nearly won a national title two years ago and nearly pushed Ramsey (NJ) Don Bosco to a title in 2011 but will start the year at No. 7 in Ohio, where evaluations are down across the board.
Monroe (La.) West Monroe
One of the most storied programs in the last two decades has fans who will book rooms for state finals before the season starts. This is a group that just missed the RivalsHigh 100 as the No. 6 team in Louisiana's preseason rankings.
Olive Branch (Miss.) High
Coming off of the first state title in school history the Conquistadors were not given the benefit of the doubt when it came to reloading a very talented graduating class. Olive Branch is still a preseason Top 5 team in Mississippi but this is not the best year in the state.
Prattville (Ala.) High
The preseason No. 1 team from 2011 - and defending state title winner in Alabama Class 6A - graduated nearly all of its starters and lost its head coach. There may not be any further drop than Prattville which had a Top 20 national finish and is now not inside the preseason Top 10 in its own state.
Sacramento (Calif.) Grant
NorCal is not a strong area in the country to begin with and this year it will start with only two teams inside the national rankings. Grant is in a major cluster of five teams which battled for the No. 3 spot in the NorCal rankings. This year that was not good enough seperation for preseason inclusion.
Valdsota (Ga.) Lowndes
Valdosta was the flag bearer for Georgia as recently as five years ago and this year it could be argued as the No. 4 team in its own Region. The Vikings do not have the same talent walking the halls as it did during its run of success and finding its way to the national rankings will be tough to do.
"We cannot cry about what has happened here the last few years. Everyone goes through tough times, but you do not get to where you want to be by crying about it. We have to work hard to get back to states."

Poly has not advanced to a California Interscholastic Federation Bowl since it lost to Sacramento (Calif.) Grant, 25-20, in December 2008. The team has a cumulative record of 25-10 in the three seasons that followed; it was 73-13 in the previous eight seasons, all under head coach Raul Lara.

Its national ranking has fallen along with its elite reputation.

In 2007, the Jackrabbits finished the year ranked No. 21 followed, by a No. 29 ranking in 2008. The 2009 season began with a No. 19 national ranking and ended with a 7-5 record and the team unranked nationally.

However, following the program's worst season in 20 years, the expectations increased as the team returned the majority of its starters. In 2010, Poly began the year with a No. 2 ranking in the preseason rankings, but that was quickly proven to be too high as the team finished 8-3 and No. 28 in California.

Entering the 2011 season, a tempered expectation was set on the team with a No. 50 preseason ranking. It went 10-2 and finished No. 15 in California but unranked nationally.

The 2012 team will have to climb the mountain the same way the vast majority of teams across the country have to do.

Adam Gorney, the West Coast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, has noticed the slide but said that the talent on the team has not dropped off in recent years.

"Poly had four players sign with Arizona State, one with Texas A&M and one with UCLA, so the talent level was just fine last season," he said. "I saw them play three times, so there's no question they had the players to win games.

"Richard Smith, Josiah Blandin and Randall Goforth were leaders on the offense and Salamo Fiso and Matthew Rowe led the defense. They were focused, together and a pretty tough team."

The talent may have been there, it may just have not been in the right positions.

During the 11 years that Rivals.com has tracked recruiting classes, the Poly program has signed 61 players to different college football programs and has eight current alumni in the NFL.

But of those players to come from the program, only one has been a quarterback.

Leon Jackson III was the last quarterback from Long Beach Poly to go on to play college football when he signed with Utah State as part of the Class of 2003.

Lack of production from the position has forced the Jackrabbits to play from behind at one of the most important positions on the field.

"One thing that has held Poly back in recent years is that they've struggled at quarterback, and that could be a factor why they haven't been as competitive," Gorney said. "Many of the top teams in Southern California especially have outstanding quarterback play, so they're always staying in games, but Poly has not had the same success."

According to the Rivals.com database, the state of California has produced 370 quarterback commitments since 2002.

Currently, California has 17 quarterbacks with offers in the Class of 2013, while Poly will have another open competition to see who will start.

As unsettled as the quarterback position has been, mental toughness was also not a strength of the team.

According to Lewis, it is the ability to keep focused and stay interested in the game that needs to improve.

"I don't want to take anything from those seniors last year because they were our big brothers, but I thought a lot of kids were giving up when things went bad," he said. "They didn't quit, but it felt like one play could beat us, and that is not what great teams do. The little things would trip us up and it would just get worse."

Poly gets Addidas TechFit
College football teams have been getting special treatment in the uniform department from adidas over the years, but next season a couple high school teams will be getting in on the fun as well, after adidas announced Long Beach (Calif.) Poly's football team would be decked out in Techfit.

As you can see from the photos, that not only means new uniforms, but gloves and shoes as well, making Long Beach Poly one of the best-dressed teams in the state. Adidas even managed to get a photo of Snoop Dogg, a Poly alum, wearing the new adizero Smoke gloves.

Adidas also announced defending 6A champs Prattville (Alabama) High will be getting the Techfit treatment as well, making the two schools the envy of every high school football team in the country.

The move to outfit high school teams in the same adidas gear as the college kids comes on the heels of Nike's decision last season to put select high schools in their Pro Combat gear.

- Jonathan Wall, PrepRally Blog on Yahoo! Sports

Lewis' mother, Angela Culpepper, is hoping that the tide will turn faster than the three seasons it took to go wrong. She admitted that like many other parents, her hope is that football can help her son leave Long Beach and go to college.

"That is why we chose this school," she said "Historically, the school has had the best football program in the nation.

"I encourage him to perform to the best of his ability every day due to the competition. The toughness and keep-your-chin-up attitude is mandatory to survive the program."

The competition for playing time is something that is not lost on Lewis. He, like so many others at Poly, has had to wait his turn for a chance to play.

"We may have new faces but we are hungry," Lewis said. "We want to win games. We want to earn scholarships. We want that national respect."

Currently, there are three Poly seniors with major college football offers: defensive back David Price is the highest ranked by Rivals.com as a three-star safety; running back Gerald Wicks has verbally committed to Washington State; and linebacker Jayon Brown has offers from Colorado and Colorado State.

It is the constant flow of talent at Poly that Gorney says can help propel the team back to prominence.

"The talent in California is much more concentrated on teams, so there are probably 10-15 powerhouse programs that have multiple Division I players every year whether public or private," he said. "Many times, there is lots of money in these programs, so they have beautiful fields and beautiful gear and they're kind of run like a small college program."

While Poly may not have the monetary advantages of others in Southern California it has traditionally been a program worthy of inclusion with the annual best.

Lewis believes being doubted will be a good thing.

"We take our football season very serious," he said. "We have grown men crying in the stands when we lose tough games, so there are not many people here that believe we cannot be special every year.

"If people on the outside want to doubt us, then that is fine. It may be just what we need."

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