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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. Matt Costa arrived at Kennedy in the spring and immediately put his stamp on a football program in need of a turnaround.

  • Coach Matt Costa takes over a Kennedy football team that was 0-10 last season and also rocked by a fourth-quarter brawl against McClatchy and the midseason firing of a coach after an inappropriate photo of him appeared on the Internet. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. Matt Costa says Kennedy, which has enjoyed success academically and in other sports programs, is a "sleeping giant."

Hometown Report: Kennedy football looks for turnaround under Matt Costa

Published: Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012 - 11:02 am

Chad Sweitzer ran into his football coach this week and reminded him of an earlier discussion.

No overnight stays allowed in the faculty lounge.

Sweitzer is the Kennedy High School principal with an enthusiastic equal in Matt Costa, the first-year Cougars coach who would back his motor home next to the end zone if it allowed him an earlier start to this reclamation project.

He is applying polish to a program stained by scandal last fall – a fourth-quarter brawl with rival McClatchy that resulted in game forfeitures and player suspensions, and then the resignation of coach Henry Lusk when a photo surfaced on the Internet, showing him clad in a thong. Those were the low points to an otherwise dreadful 0-10 season.

Sweitzer knew he needed a splash of a hire, understanding the culture of the football team can influence the student body. In any district in any region, good vibes from football can resonate. Sweitzer said he has a difference-maker in the 31-year-old Costa, who admits to being stimulated by the challenge ahead. The former athletic director at new Cristo Rey High and head coach at Mira Loma, Costa arrived at Kennedy in the spring with a mop and broom. He cleaned house. He removed previous assistant coaches. He jettisoned disgruntled players. Others left or quit. Of the 27 players on the current roster, only two remain from last season. New faces, new jerseys and a new offense.

"From Day One, Costa has been a ray of sunshine for us," Sweitzer said. "Other coaches in the area are blown away at the change in football here – the attitude, discipline, the intensity of the workouts.

"Costa has opened the eyes of the kids here, which is fantastic. We need it. And we've also spoken about time management. I won't let Costa live here on campus. He has a personal life as well, so coach, and then go home."

Here's what Costa likes about his boss Sweitzer: commitment. Costa said he marveled at Sweitzer earlier this summer as he rode an ATV across the playing fields and student parking lot, spraying the weeds he couldn't yank out by hand.

Kennedy is home for Sweitzer. He was a team-captain lineman on Kennedy's last playoff team in 1990. He played for Pete Scorza, the program's winningest coach who has been battling cancer.

Costa said Kennedy is a "sleeping giant." The school has been a Sacramento City Unified School District academic powerhouse since opening in Greenhaven in 1968. There has been athletic success across the board, but football suffered in recent years, resulting in smaller rosters and lopsided losses. Costa, who is a special education teacher, is Kennedy's sixth coach since 2004. The Cougars have produced two winning seasons since 1990.

Last year was the low point. Footage of the Kennedy-McClatchy fight made national news. The Lusk resignation brought more headlines and scorn.

"We've got to let go of the past, and that's hard to do sometimes," said senior lineman Kenneth Eto. "We have a coach in Mr. Costa who can change the program."

Ian Allison, a junior halfback and honors student, said: "Football is what can help bring this school together even more. It's a great school, and we can help that by being a better football team."

In 2009, Costa guided Mira Loma to its second playoff berth since 1985, so miracles can happen. The coach said Kennedy's workouts have been spirited – in the weight room, conditioning drills in the gym and on the field.

"I'm in love with this team," Costa said. "They've taken a business approach to this thing. Their enthusiasm for playing football is unbelievable. It gets so loud in drills you can't even hear."

It's a good noise this time, the sound of healing and progress.

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