Sports

Crenshaw went 2-7, but its football season could finish with another state title

The once-thriving City Section rivalry came and went in late October. The bottom continued to fall out, the hole continuing to deepen for Crenshaw High football, the Dorsey Dons rolling over the Cougars by 40 in the biggest game of the season.

It was such a blowout that nobody seems to recall the right score. Crenshaw community member Eugene Henley said it was 54-7. Dons coach Stafon Johnson said it was 49-7, or “something like that.” Scorebook Live put it at 42-7; someone threw MaxPreps for a complete loop, the site reporting a 54-42 win for Crenshaw.

Whatever the score, the loss sealed the season in Henley’s mind. Crenshaw had finished 2-7. But when he caught up with Robert Garrett, the longtime coach told Henley his group would “still be playing when the rest of these guys are done,” Henley recalled.

“I was saying to myself, ‘I don’t know, big bro’ … never did he waver,” said Henley, who films all the Cougars’ games. “It was like this man had superpowers of some sort.”

Two months later, by some miracle, Crenshaw is traveling to San Francisco to play for a CIF state championship on Saturday. Yes, it’s in the lowest division possible out of 15 at Division 7-A, a fall from the Division 4-AA state title the school won in 2017. Yet for a legendary program that’s been gutted by COVID-19 and private-school poaching, a program that had less than 20 players at summer practices and about 25 throughout the playoffs, it’s a remarkable moment of triumph.

“It’s not one movie,” Henley said, “that could tell the story of this season.”

Before the school year, Crenshaw’s enrollment was down to about 500 students. Charter and private schools had taken their toll, feeder schools no longer feeding, neighborhood kids busing elsewhere for an education.

“You don’t see the writing on the wall?” Garrett asked rhetorically over the summer.

The coach spoke grimly of the program’s future. Henley said rumors circled that the program would shut down.

Garrett’s steadfast belief, though, was simple — just get in the tournament, and his team could make a turnaround. Seeded second in the Division III playoffs despite their dismal season, they blew out Los Angeles High. Blew out Verdugo Hills. Blew out Manual Arts, regarded as the team to beat in Division III, Wilson coach Luddim Montenegro said. Blew out Wilson to take a City title, then Whittier Christian to claim a Division 7-A regional crown.

These aren’t the days of De’Anthony Thomas and Brandon Mebane, but Crenshaw has a “dynamic offense,” Montenegro said, led by quarterback Donce Lewis and running back Andrew Wynn. They’ll run up against San Francisco Lincoln at Kezar Stadium, once the home of the San Francisco 49ers, for a shot at a state crown.

It would be a championship, Henley said, that could help enrollment at Crenshaw. That could make players feel they still can win in a Cougars uniform. That, as Henley said, could “help revive people’s trust in inner-city schools.”

“When they’re down, the City is down,” Johnson said of rival Crenshaw. “So for them to have some success in a season with some turmoil … it’s definitely a good thing.”

Even if the team walks out of Kezar empty-handed, Crenshaw’s already won, Henley said: The team is traveling to San Francisco to play at a state level.

“Around here,” Garrett chuckled before the Wilson victory, “the Lord must be really working on me.”

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