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  • José Luis Villegas /

    Under head coach DeWayne Norris (with towel) and assistant Travis Burton, Encina (2-0) has allowed only two points this season. A big test awaits on Saturday.

  • José Luis Villegas /

    Encina coach DeWayne Norris, 62, says: "I'm no dummy. I could see we had talent – it was just a matter of me not messing it up.'"

  • José Luis Villegas /

    John Hlyzoff, a senior guard-nose tackle with a 4.31 grade-point average, hopes to attend Stanford. He says Encina's coaches are always upbeat, stressing the positive.

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Unlikely football coach sparks turnaround at Encina

Published: Friday, Sep. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

When DeWayne Norris agreed to become the interim football coach at Encina High School in mid-August, his trepidation was understandable.

It wasn't about the Bulldogs' sorry history – five wins in seven seasons – their coaching carousel, the nagging shortage of players, the transient student body or the challenging neighborhood demographics.

And never mind that two weeks before the team's first game, then-athletic director Richard Tucker, a former college coach who was overseeing the team, resigned and left the school because of a family emergency in Southern California.

No, the 62-year-old Norris' greatest concern was that he had never coached football.

"It sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?" Norris said. "But I never would have done it if it wasn't for my assistants and the kids. We've got a wonderful group. They didn't need any more letdowns."

Yet, what seemed like a recipe for disaster is turning into an uplifting story at the aging campus of 621 students a few miles from Arden Fair.

With the fatherly, low-key Norris at the helm, the Bulldogs are 2-0 after beating West Campus 30-0 in the season opener and Kennedy 30-2 last weekend.

Toss in last year's 30-0, season-ending win over San Juan under then-coach Dave Johnson Jr. – snapping a 24-game losing streak – and Encina has an unheard of three-game winning streak entering Saturday's game against Elliot Christian at El Camino High School.

But the Eagles from Lodi could be the test of whether this season is a mirage or an oasis for a school that has had just two winning football seasons since 1987.

San Juan, West Campus and Kennedy went winless last season while Elliot Christian was a playoff team that won seven games and beat Encina 42-8.

Still, Norris is a believer, despite his limited football background. He played high school football in Indiana.

"I'm no dummy," he said. "I could see that we had talent – it was just a matter of me not messing it up. 'Tuck' hated to leave, but he laid the foundation by putting in the offense and defense and putting together the coaching staff. I've got great assistants. They know the X's and O's. It's kind of the perfect storm."

A storm that hit West Campus in Week 1.

"We couldn't match their speed," said West Campus coach Nate Harris. "That's a very athletic bunch."

A former basketball player at Eastern New Mexico, Norris has worked with at-risk and foster children for years in Sacramento and Davis.

The Natomas resident has gotten to know Encina and its students by working as an assistant boys basketball coach for son-in-law Freddie Bryant for the last three seasons.

Now Bryant is helping Norris along with assistants Travis Burton, Terry Wilson and Will Clark, the lone holdover from last season, to try to make this a season to remember.

"I've always worked with tough kids, and I enjoy it, but these aren't even tough kids," Norris said. "They're just kids trying to make it. We expect discipline and commitment. We push our kids to get an education. … I want to instill a sense of family."

Tasha Bryant, Norris' daughter, is the unofficial team mom, disciplinarian and head cheerleader.

"We'd watch the games last year, and the kids would be so deflated," she said. "Dave did a good job, but it's just so hard to keep coaches nowadays. The turnover is tough for the kids because they already are dealing with a lot of stuff kids their age shouldn't have to be dealing with."

Encina's victories in the first two games, matching their highest win total in seven seasons, have led to a dramatic mood change at games.

"You can feel the energy," Tasha Bryant said. "The games are exciting; the parents are happy."

Team leaders Maurice Campbell, John Hlyzoff and Daquan Bryant don't want to see the good times end.

Still fresh are last season's dark days when there might be a half-dozen players at practice, classmates teased them, the stands were almost empty, and opponents piled on the points (they were outscored 365-30 in their seven losses).

"To be honest, I never thought we'd be 2-0 with our old coach leaving so soon," said Campbell, a senior running back-safety and the team's emerging star. "I thought it was going to go downhill.

"But coach (Norris) knows football. We're all in way better condition this season. We now have a study hall, so kids can't fall off their grades. It feels like we're building something here."

Daquan Bryant (no relation), a junior linebacker-fullback whom Norris calls the team's emotional leader, sees more resilience and fight this year.

"We had 14 to 16 players last year. Now we've got 27, and we're way more athletic," Bryant said. "Last year, when someone would stop us or score, we'd just shut down, argue, get mad. Now there's more trust, and we hustle a lot more."

Hlyzoff, a senior guard-nose tackle with a 4.31 grade-point average, says the coaches are always upbeat, stressing the positive.

"It's been us against the world, and people still don't think we're for real," said Hlyzoff, who aspires to attend Stanford. "Hopefully, we can build a program and start a dynasty that will make our school proud."

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