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With only 22 players, McClymond’s football aims for state championships

on December 9, 2010

Standing in the school weight room, McClymonds High head football coach Curtis McCauley gestured his left arm toward the metal bars and plates that were clanking long before the football season started.

“It all started in here,” said McCauley, 45. “My philosophy is, championships are won during the offseason.”

The weight room is where McClymonds’ varsity football players built strength and team unity. It’s where they set the foundation for one of the most successful seasons in school history, during which they earned a perfect 12-and-0 record on their way to winning the Oakland Athletic League championship this fall and making a serious bid to play in a state championship game.

All that has been accomplished with just 22 players, a roster a third the size of some teams McClymonds faced this season. “It’s something special to have a team with 22 guys going 12-and-0,” senior Travon Brooks, the team’s starting fullback and middle linebacker, says after a team meeting in the school’s weight room. Wearing short dreads and a goatee, the soft-spoken Brooks grins as he reflects on the season. “It gives a whole extra meaning to it.”

By beating Fremont High School Nov. 26 for the Oakland public schools’ championship, McClymonds’ Warriors became eligible for one of several state championship games, to be played Dec. 18 or Dec. 19 between Northern and Southern California’s best high school teams. But the players won’t know until Sunday, when commissioners of Northern California’s high school sections gather for an end-of-season meeting, whether they will have a chance to play for a state title. The commissioners will decide at that meeting which Northern California teams will play in each of the five state championship games against Southern California opponents. “It’s like waiting for Christmas presents,” said Wendall Taiese, who, at 6-foot-6, 350-pounds, is the team’s largest player.

Led by the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Marcus Peters, who plays wide receiver on offense and cornerback on defense, the McClymonds starters rarely come off the field, meaning they are pulling double duty—playing both offense and defense—in the physically demanding sport. That is generally considered a competitive disadvantage against larger teams that are able to field teams with a different player at each of the 11 offensive and 11 defensive positions—and have plenty of backups at each position. “We call it gladiator football,” McCauley says with a laugh. “That’s how they used to play the game.”

Oakland Athletic League commissioner Michael Moore credits McCauley for leading the small band of players to an undefeated season. “You cannot understate the job the head coach has done,” Moore said. “For David to not fear Goliath is just wonderful.”

McClymonds quarterback Eddie Heard throws a pass to a teammate during a team gathering Monday. The team is holding light workouts—practices without pads—this week in case it is selected to play in the Division II state championship game later this month.

The team roster is so small largely because the school’s enrollment is so low. With 253 students, McClymonds—called Mack, for short—is considerably smaller than the five other schools that make up the Oakland Athletic League, as well as the other schools the Warriors played in non-league games this season. Some of their opponents came from schools with more than 2,000 students.

Despite having so few students, the McClymonds campus, which accommodated three times as many students just five years ago, is not as empty as it could be, says Kevin Taylor, the high school’s new principal. An adult school and a community health center help fill the three-story school building that sits two blocks west of the intersection of Market Street and San Pablo Avenue.

Enrollment hasn’t always been so low. McClymonds used to be a bustling school, with a rich history that such includes alums as basketball hall-of-famer Bill Russell, Grammy-winning rapper M.C. Hammer, and Oakland mayor and former congressman Ron Dellums. Malcom X and Muhammad Ali once spoke at the same function hosted by the school.

But the school’s enrollment has gradually dwindled over the years, with industries leaving West Oakland, and then open enrollment allowing students to choose other schools in the Oakland Unified School District.

In 2005, the campus was split into three schools and renamed the McClymonds Educational Complex. None of the new schools—EXCEL, BEST and Kizmet Academy—retained the school’s original name, which undermined the community’s connection with a place that had been a West Oakland anchor for nearly a century, Taylor said. That precipitated a further drop in the student body.

Kizmet was closed soon after the split. Finally, with enrollment on the campus a third of what it was when the split occurred, EXCEL and BEST were merged this year into one school, with the original old name reinstated.

“Now we have to attract those same individuals that made it such a thriving school,” said Taylor, 35, a former basketball star at Bishop O’Dowd High School. “We’re trying to get back to the previous glory.”

The enrollment plunge has left the school with a core of students who identified with McClymonds—sometimes because their own family members were graduates—long before they reached high school. “The students dream about coming to school here,” said longtime McClymonds teacher LuPaulette Taylor (no relation to the principal).

Even as its enrollment dropped in recent years, though, the school has not been void of glory athletically. In 2008, its boys’ basketball team was ranked third in the United States, and won the state championship for Division 1, the highest level in high school sports. The football team has won five league titles in the last decade, with its most successful team emerging this year, during the school’s lowest enrollment in decades.

LuPaulette Tayor said the continued athletic success stems in part from immense support from the community, including alumni who have stay connected with the school. “Most of the assistant coaches went to Mack,” LuPaulette Taylor said. “I taught a lot of them.” Besides the coaching staff, many other McClymonds alumni—including players’ parents—attend games and volunteer their time to support the program. “It’s a lot about legacy,” LuPaulette Taylor said.

McCauley, who runs an accounting business in Oakland when he isn’t coaching, is in his second year as the McClymonds head coach. His history with the league goes back 30 years, to when he played linebacker at a rival school, Oakland High, in the early 1980s. In the past decade he had a stint as a McClymonds assistant coach and spent a season head coaching at his alma mater.

The football team could have had more players this season, McCauley said, but it lost a few to poor grades, others who transferred to other schools, and “some who didn’t want to put in the work” in the offseason.

“Our goal was to get up to 30, 35 kids. We’d get close, then something would happen,” McCauley said. “It was meant for us to be with our 22.”

The players said they don’t see their roster size as a handicap; no matter how many players are on a team, only 11 can be on the field at once. And having such a small squad fosters what Taiese called a “brotherhood” among the players.

Despite the football’s team storied history, a lot had to align in order for this year’s Warriors to succeed.

McClymonds head coach Curtis McCauley talks to his players on the school’s football team Monday. McCauley was trying to motivate his players to stay focused on football despite not knowing whether the team will be selected to play in a state championship game later this month.

Some good fortune factored into the team’s success, McCauley said.  No players were lost to injury. And with eight coaches, including seven assistants who volunteer their time, the team has a player-to-coach ratio of less than 3-to-, meaning the players receive ample instruction on the field and oversight off it.

The coaches and teachers have played a big role in making sure the players stay on top of their studies—and remain academically eligible to play, which meaning maintaining a minimum 2.0 grade-point average.  The players are required to attend study hall between the end of the school and the start of practice at 5:30 p.m. If any of the players struggle in the classroom, the coaches find out. “The teachers call us,” McCauley said. “I have a teacher that calls me every time a player fails a quiz or doesn’t do well on a quiz.”

While the team roster is a short list, the team’s 16 seniors bring considerable experience and ability. Of that group, McCauley said seven will probably go on to play Division 1 or 1-AA football, including Denzale Johnson, a stocky, 5-foot-8 running back who may be Ivy League-bound, with his 4.0 grade-point average; and Peters, who is ranked as the 25th best cornerback prospect among high school seniors in the nation. The team’s offensive and defensive lines are built around mountainous Taiese, who is one of the biggest high school athletes in the Bay Area. Eddie Heard, the team’s 6-foot-4 quarterback, who showed up to Monday’s light workout in a light grey McClymonds sweatsuit, accented by dark grey scarf and beanie, could play football or baseball in college, McCauley said.

“It’s an exceptional group,” McCauley said. “This team right here will go down as the greatest team in Mack history.”

Their legacy won’t be confined to the football field. Last spring, the baseball team only had two players before McCauley, who also serves as the school’s head baseball coach, convinced 11 football players to spend their spring on the diamond so McClymonds could field a team. Some of them had never played organized baseball before, including Johnson, who went on to earn All-City honors as a second baseman. They were not championship-caliber, but through their competitive natures and athleticism, the football players saved the baseball season.

“You put them up to the challenge,” McCauley said, “they believe they can do anything.”

That includes winning a state title in football—if given the chance. Whether they get that opportunity depends on a process that will be decided by football elders at a table rather than high school athletes on a field.

The six schools of the Oakland Athletic League—McClymonds, Castlemont Community of Schools, Fremont, Oakland High, Oakland Tech and Skyline High—comprise both their own league and their own section. That makes the OAL an anomaly among the state’s 10 high schools sports sections.  Besides the San Francisco Section, which encompasses just a dozen schools in San Francisco, Northern California’s other sections—Central Coast, North Coast, Northern and Sac-Joaquin—each cover many leagues across several counties. The North Coast Section, for example, includes 115 schools with football teams, from Alameda County to the Oregon border. The Central Coast Section includes 139 high schools from King City to San Francisco.

Each section is broken down into divisions, and each division runs an internal playoff that takes three to four weeks to complete.  The winner of each section’s division is then eligible for the state championship game in that division. Since the Oakland section is comprised of just one league, its section champion is the winner of the six-team Oakland Athletic League.

The Oakland league determines its pitting  teams with the four best records against each other in a two-week playoff. The two winners from the first week play each other the next week in the Silver Bowl for the championship.   It was the day after Thanksiving, Nov. 26 that McClymonds took home the Silver Bowl trophy this year. “That’s what makes it tough,” McCauley said. “You have to beat teams twice.”

Now, the team’s fate is in the hands of the six Northern California sectional commissioners. Choosing teams for the five state championship games, which are basically pairings of opponents based on school size, is a complex process, like the annual selection of contestants for college bowl games. Northern California commissioners will make their choices when they meet Sunday in Carson, the Southern California city where the championship games will be played the following weekend.

OAL commissioner Michael Moore said that on the surface it would not seem to make sense for a team with so few players from such a small school to play against bigger teams. “But there are very small private schools that have performed very well in particular sports,” he said. Plus, “we have very recent history that says they can hold their own.”

While McClymonds is a public school, its athletes have proven exceptions to the small-school rule. Moore points to the recent success of the boys’ basketball team, which has played in the state championship three times in the last five years. “That blows that argument out of the water,” Moore said.

With its status for the title game unknown, the football team took last week off from practice, and this week is taking part in light workouts. If the Warriors are not selected to play in Carson, it would be a disappointment, said Brooks, the team’s starting fullback and middle linebacker. But while “everyone on the team” wants to play one more game, being left out of the state title game won’t tarnish McClymond’s season, he said.

“If we don’t get picked, we’ll understand,” Brooks said. “If we don’t go, I know we had a great season.”

Lead image: McClymonds High football players sit in the weight room during a team meeting about the their prospects for playing for a state title. The team, which has just 22 players, will found out Sunday whether it was chosen to play in the Division II championship game.

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