The Panorama City Catholic school's team had seven losing seasons this decade. The turnaround is part of a larger school success story being celebrated on the eve of homecoming.
There were teenage zombies running around St. Genevieve High in Panorama City this week as part of homecoming activities, their faces red and their T-shirts torn. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is the homecoming theme, and that could be the motto for Southern California's only 7-0 football team.
That's a remarkable achievement for any program -- especially one with seven losing seasons this decade. And it fits in with the success story of a Catholic school that has gone through a transformation, if not a resurrection, over the last 10 years.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, St. Genevieve was a football powerhouse in the San Fernando Valley. Its coach, Lindon Crow, played cornerback for a 1958 New York Giants team that had Vince Lombardi as offensive coordinator and Tom Landry as defensive coordinator.
In other words, Crow had learned from the best, and knew what he was doing. One of his assistants was a young upstart named Ed Croson, who went on to guide Birmingham to four City Section titles.
But Crow retired, the community changed, and St. Genevieve was barely hanging on when Dan Horn became principal in 1999. School enrollment, once near 1,000, had dropped to 300.
Horn decided to implement a Character Education program designed to teach students the pillars of good character, such as citizenship, trustworthiness and responsibility. In 2003, the school was named a National School of Character, the first in California and the first Catholic school in the nation.
Nothing turned around overnight. It took months, if not years, to have an effect. But slowly, the school changed. Enrollment picked up. And an athletic program that qualified only six teams for the playoffs in the 1990s has sent 76 teams this decade.
No sport has made a bigger turnaround than football. The school had four head coaches in four years until Eric Harris, a former All-City linebacker for Chatsworth, arrived in 2007. He had been defensive coordinator at Calabasas and coached in Switzerland. But what he lacked in credentials he more than made up for in energy and commitment.
At 28, Harris has the team believing in itself. Adding to the Valiants' success was the hiring last year of Scot Ruggles as football operations director. He had been a defensive line coach at Harvard. His job is to help free up Harris, who teaches five classes of world history. Ruggles is in charge of scheduling, fundraising and equipment, and he also coaches the defense.
Then there's the team's standout player, senior quarterback Chris Navarro, who has been attending St. Genevieve schools since kindergarten and has a 3.8 grade-point average. He has rushed for 24 touchdowns and passed for eight.
"The whole thing is I trust him," Harris said.
St. Genevieve is ranked No. 3 in the Northeast Division, which equates to Division XIII, the lowest in the Southern Section. It's a far cry from 31 years ago, when the Valiants defeated Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in a game, but the team and the school have picked themselves off the ground and started their climb.
Enrollment has nearly doubled in 10 years, to 579 students. Tuition, $7,100 a year, remains the least expensive for a Catholic high school in the San Fernando Valley. The school has started to attract students from South Los Angeles private middle schools after sending buses to the area following the closing of Daniel Murphy High. Its demographics represent the community it serves, with 48% of the students Latino and 45% Filipino.
On Saturday night, St. Genevieve celebrates its 50th anniversary with homecoming festivities at Sun Valley Poly. The Valiants play Long Beach St. Anthony at 7:30.
"I had a vision for this school, what it could become, but it has surpassed anything I could imagine," Horn said.
On Saturday at 4 p.m., there will be a parade down Roscoe Boulevard, complete with floats made by students and football players traveling on flatbed trucks and cheerleaders escorted on a fire engine in the middle of a usually busy Los Angeles street.
"Each year, we turn Panorama City into small-town America for about an hour," Horn said.
This year, it truly is a chance to celebrate a school and football program's rebirth.
Story by: Eric Sondheimer
Source: L.A. Times