For years, Crenshaw High has been known for having one of the premier basketball programs in California. The reputation is certainly justified, considering the eight state titles the school has won since 1981.
Now, it's the Cougars football team that is taking the big stage.
Crenshaw will represent Southern California in the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division bowl game at 8 p.m. on Saturday against De La Salle. In so doing, the Cougars will be the first Los Angeles City Section team to participate in a bowl game since the bowls started four years ago.
"It's just an honor to be a participant," Crenshaw coach Robert Garrett said. "To play a team like De La Salle is just awesome. They're top dog, and to be in the company of them is just awesome itself."
Located in South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood that deals routinely with gang-related issues, the school has been featured in movies such as "Boyz n the Hood" and "Love & Basketball." The basketball program's success has led to widespread recognition throughout the state, and the Cougars defeated De La Salle for the 1996 title.
The football program's transformation has started at the ground level. A local youth football league, started by rapper Snoop Dogg, has been credited by many for engendering a renewed interest in football.
The Snoop Youth Football League has produced many of the top players on this year's Crenshaw team, including star running back/defensive back De'Anthony Thomas, who is known throughout the community as "The Black Mamba."
"There's a lot of attractive things they have going on there," said CalHiSports.com senior editor Ronnie Flores. "They have a Pop Warner program that kids are inclined to go to now. It seems like they're more together."
The Cougars have consistently produced college talent even when they weren't winning titles. From 2005-07, 15 players signed Division I scholarship offers. One was current Cal cornerback Darian Hagan, who starred on the 2005 team that won the school's first City Section title by beating Taft-Woodland Hills.
"What sticks out in my mind is when Darian Hagan jumped up in the air and picked the ball out of another guy's hands (against Taft), and it was the play of the century," said Garrett, who has coached at Crenshaw since 1988. "That'll stick out in my mind forever."
With the success also comes the hard truth about the region. A recent blog post on the Los Angeles Times Web site raised the issue that some of the players' families might not be able to afford tickets to Saturday's game.
Donations have come from all parts of the country, including from De La Salle parents. According to the L.A. Times, the biggest gesture came Wednesday, when former USC and NFL wide receiver Keary Colbert donated an unspecified sum large enough to cover two tickets for each player to give to friends or family.
Even with the recent success and the support the program is now getting, Garrett is very clear about how his team stacks up to the great tradition established by the Cougars' basketball prowess.
"We're improving each year, and we can't say we're at the same status of the basketball program because those teams were proven," Garrett said. "We don't stand near those teams just yet, but we're trying to get that way."
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