In the midst of an uncharacteristically lethargic start to the high school football season, Long Beach Poly coach Raul Lara could see the tension building in the stands.
And, wow, could he ever hear it, too.
Lara heads a program steeped in tradition, with fans who crave and demand success. Win games and you're treated like a celebrity; lose and you're deemed a foolish lost soul.
After the Jackrabbits were routed 56-0 by Narbonne-Harbor City, Long Beach Poly supporters booed the team off the field. After the loss, Lara was asked if he wanted a mercy running clock; he laughed and said the team might as well take the beating.
Internet fan forums were jammed, with many pushing for new coach. A week later, a 29-6 loss to Bakersfield drew more scorn.
Lara held a team meeting and insisted there was time to turn things around if everyone bought in.
Now Lara has the Jackrabbits on a roll with 11 consecutive victories heading into Friday's game against equally hot Granite Bay for the CIF State Division I championship at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
"We've endured, and it's a different kind of enduring than I think Granite Bay went through this season," Lara said. "Our alumni and fan base is really into this, and they can be supportive, but they can be cruel. We were embarrassed early, and we were ridiculed a lot. I can understand some of it because we're used to the heat. I'd be in the stands, too, wondering what the heck is going on."
But, Lara said, only to a point.
"That's my No. 1 thing go ahead and criticize me, but not the kids," Lara said. "I get very upset with that. Back off. The fans, even some in the media, called us Paper Jackrabbits. We're not an NFL team. This is high school. These are teenagers. Relax, please. But this is Poly and these are the expectations."
Lara has been coaching at his alma mater for 23 seasons, the last 12 as head coach. He has won five of Long Beach Poly's 19 Southern Section championships and made it to one previous CIF State Bowl game, falling to Grant 25-20 in 2008, a loss that he said "is still with me."
Long Beach Poly has one of the most storied programs in the state a public-school powerhouse with more than 5,000 students that has played football for 96 seasons. Poly is second in the state with 721 victories and has had a national all-time-best 51 players make it to the NFL, including Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
"Football is big here, and we weren't playing well early, which upset a lot of people," said Poly linebacker Jayon Brown, who has committed to UCLA. "We're back to playing Poly football now."
Poly football means a big, physical line and fast backs such as Gerald Wicks and Manusamoa Lu'uga this season to grind on teams.
The Jackrabbits also have become stingy on defense after the slow start. Poly allowed just 37 points in going 6-0 in the Moore League, then won the Pac-5 playoff scramble, considered the toughest division in the country by veteran coaches. Poly beat Bishop Amat of La Puente 40-25, knocked off unbeaten Mission Viejo 21-16 (allowing just seven net rushing yards), then followed by beating St. John Bosco of Bellflower 13-10. In the Southern Section finals, Poly easily beat then-state-ranked No. 4 Mater Dei of Santa Ana 35-17, holding the Monarchs to minus-14 yards rushing.
Against Clovis North in the Southern California Division I championship, Poly used its running game to break open a 7-7 halftime tie en route to a 28-7 victory.
In four playoff games, Lara used four different offensive schemes. He said he isn't afraid to make wholesale changes.
"You do what you have to do," Lara said. "We've survived the slow start. We're back to being Poly, but we can't let up. We have another really tough game against a great team in Granite Bay."