McKinley High football coach Robert Signater offers an analogy few would dispute.
“People ask me what it’s like to compete against the other 5A teams in our district,” he said. “I tell them, ‘We’ve got a hammer and nails. Everybody else has a nail gun.’
“Now that doesn’t mean we can’t get things done. But it takes longer, and it’s harder to do.”
Signater’s words offer a gritty, insightful look into high school football in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Long gone are the 1950s and 1960s glory days of Istrouma High. And Istrouma? Well, it’s gone, too, having closed after the 2014 school year, just a couple of years after being taken over by Louisiana’s Recovery School District.
Redemptorist was another north Baton Rouge school that carved a niche in Louisiana’s football landscape, winning three state titles between 2002 and 2005 and remaining a Class 3A power for several years. The Diocese of Baton Rouge opted to close the school last spring following a steady enrollment decline.
EBR schools are hammering away to prepare for the 2015 season, but questions abound about the future. The ever-changing football landscape today appears to favor suburban and private schools, along with those offering magnet or specialty programs.
“It’s all a cycle, and right now it’s not good for some schools,” first-year Belaire coach Claude Coleman said. “They say your school isn’t good enough academically. You’ve had kids leave this neighborhood for years to go to other schools, either private schools or magnet schools like Scotlandville.
“Those are the kind of kids who help change your school performance score. When you say magnet, the assumption is that everything is better. Well, I think every school should have a magnet program as a way to attract students.”
Coleman, who lives near Belaire, has a son on the team and previously coached at a nearby middle school. His grassroots approach has struck a chord.
The Bengals’ football numbers in grades 9 through 12 have more than doubled since the spring. EBR Superintendent Warren Drake said the plan is to double the number of home-side bleachers for the modest school-site stadium unveiled last fall.
It’s not just academic
A mix of academic and economic issues plagues many EBR schools, along with lingering effects from years of court-ordered busing that shuttled students from one side of the parish to the other.
Signater cautiously notes that his school is one of the lucky ones with its magnet programs. Scotlandville, with engineering, and Woodlawn, with its south Baton Rouge location and newer facilities, are other EBR school system football schools that are favored above the others.
Academics is a huge factor. McKinley and Scotlandville both have highly regarded magnet programs. Those schools and Woodlawn have higher performance grades than many others in the parish.
Just as important are the active alumni groups that help raise funds to support athletics. That’s something else the schools have in common.
Another factor is the unexpected growth of some schools. At one time, Capitol and Istrouma had 1,000 or more students. Redemptorist had more than 800 students 12 years ago.
Where have all those students gone? The answer is “everywhere,” and that has led Broadmoor, McKinley and Scotlandville to become 5A schools. It also factors into the rapid growth of another charter school, Madison Prep.
Greater enrollment numbers don’t always equate to football numbers or success.
McKinley and Scotlandville struggled during their move up to Class 5A. Scotlandville had a breakout season in 2014, advancing to the quarterfinals. Woodlawn, which drops to 4A this season, had its ups and downs in 5A and has excelled in 4A.
And it was in 3A and 4A that two other schools, Broadmoor and Glen Oaks, made football headlines in the 1990s.
Broadmoor beat powerhouse John Curtis twice and had a couple of 4A semifinal berths in the ’90s. Glen Oaks was a power that made a series of deep playoff runs and sent a number of players to the college ranks, including LSU star Gabe Northern, who played five years in the NFL.
Years have passed. The cycles of success have passed both schools by. Broadmoor was 3-7 last season in its return to Class 5A with a roster of fewer than 35 players. This year, the roster numbers could be smaller. Glen Oaks’ enrollment numbers have dropped to 3A. The Panthers were 0-10 last season.
“There is a magic potion,” Broadmoor coach Elliott Wilkins said while surveying practice. “The key is ninth-grade retention. We might have 30 or 40 freshmen, but we’ll lose up to three-fourths of them based on grades. You have kids who come in and they’re not ready for high school and they fall behind. Once we lose them, it’s tough to get them back.”
Like many others, Wilkins sees Drake’s proposal to drop EBR’s current 2.0 grade-point average requirement for athletics and extracurricular activities back to 1.5 as one possible answer.
What’s a home school?
The era of parental choice has changed the way families select schools.
Magnet schools, lab schools like University High and Southern Lab, and Madison Prep, an independent charter school, have emerged as popular school choices along with private schools.
Some opt for private schools or move to places such as Zachary, Ascension Parish, Livingston Parish or other areas.
“I have cousins who played at Belaire, but I never really saw that many of their games,” Belaire senior Daquan Hicks said. “I went to games at Parkview, Episcopal and other schools when I was younger. I considered going to those schools. But I decided to stay in the neighborhood where I live. You want to be part of maybe building something. It’s been tough, but I really like the attitude this year. The numbers are up, and it’s so positive.”
“We’ve got a lot of kids from Park Forest (Middle School) who are coming here this year,” Belaire’s Coleman said. “That hasn’t happened in a while. Our freshman quarterback was courted by a lot of people and decided to come here. The speech from me is: ‘What are you going to do for your own community? Are you going to go across town and build something for somebody else instead of staying two blocks from your house?’ ”
Glen Oaks defensive back Darren Evans took much the same route. His cousin, former GOHS quarterback Brandon Vessell, now an Alcorn State standout, steered him toward the Panthers.
The 6-foot-3 Evans hasn’t garnered a lot of wins at GOHS but does have a scholarship offer from Louisiana-Lafayette. Like Belaire, Glen Oaks has seen a rise in its numbers this fall, and coach Donald Clark expects a roster of more than 40 players.
“Some guys do leave the neighborhood to go to other schools, like Southern Lab,” Evans said. “I wanted to stay here. Other schools have more than we do, and I see that. We’ve played at Parkview and U-High. I don’t let that bother me. We all play and try to do our best.”
Capitol is now Friendship Capitol in its latest incarnation as a charter school. The Lions are 16 years removed from finishing as the 4A runner-up to John Curtis at the Superdome.
Capitol made a semifinal appearance in 2A under current Southern assistant Chadwick Germany.
The closure of Career Academy gave Capitol an enrollment boost this fall to around 450 students, coach Johnny Duncan said.
That bump comes a year after Istrouma’s closure also provided an enrollment increase.
Those enrollment numbers are still a little more than half of what the enrollment was when coach Roman Bates led the Lions to the state title game.
Frequent coaching and administrative changes have hampered the Lions’ efforts to get back on track athletically. Duncan, now in his second year, said it’s a trust issue for many.
“You’ve got a lot of Capitol alumni who put their kids in other schools because they felt like people weren’t honest with them when some of the school changes were made,” Duncan said. “This is my second year, and one of the things I’ve done is get back in the community and let people know that I’m here and I’m not planning to go anywhere. It takes a while to rebuild that trust.”
But the addition of more students does give Duncan a squad of more than 40 players heading into the season in 2A. And he’s thrilled.
Bridging the gap
The shuttering of Istrouma and Redemptorist leaves Capitol and Madison Prep as the only schools in the heart of Baton Rouge’s downtown.
Capitol has battled to keep its programs going. A few blocks over, Madison Prep is flourishing, moving up to Class 2A. The school campus is on the site of an old elementary school and started as a middle school that added high school grades.
A three-year-old gym anchored by science labs is in place. More property has been purchased, and more buildings are planned to house a growing student body of more than 400 high school students.
The Chargers have skyrocketed onto the high school level as a basketball power and were a Division IV select semifinalist in football last fall.
MPA coach Michael Roach, a former Capitol player and Southern Lab coach, wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to take over a first-year varsity program two years ago.
“It is about building traditions and structure,” he said. “The way I’ve explained it is, this is like a free Southern Lab. The kids wear uniforms, and they know what’s expected of them.
“There’s a feeling of security, too. I can count on one hand the number of fights we’ve had since I’ve been here. There’s discipline. They’re expected to work in the classroom and at practice or in the weight room.”
Do the trappings matter?
Signater’s analogy of the hammer and nail gun refers to the disparity of facilities and staff.
While McKinley’s stadium has seen some upgrades, it’s not large and is no match for schools in the area with stadiums boasting artificial turf, such as Zachary, Denham Springs and Parkview Baptist.
There’s no large, nearly pristine football facility like you’ll see at places like Dutchtown, Central or Plaquemine.
University has settled into a prominent player in all sports. There are great facilities and lower tuition, which is based on LSU’s tuition, UHS Athletic Director Jill White said. The fact that U-High is a highly rated, blue-ribbon academic school is another selling point parents buy into.
But it’s not necessarily what every student wants. Broadmoor lineman Jamil Abdul-Aziz points proudly to the fact that his older brother and former teammate, Jibrail, is an LSU walk-on.
“I went to Broadmoor Middle School, and my goal was always to go to Broadmoor High, like my brother did,” Abdul-Aziz said. “What those other schools have is nice. What I want is the chance to help Broadmoor get better and win. It’s not easy, and I’m OK with that.”
There were plenty of doubts for Capitol linebacker Chris Duhon and his teammates last fall when the Lions changed coaches during the season. There were rumors the school might close. Duhon said none of that mattered.
“It was a decision that us as a freshman class made,” said Duhon, who comes from a family of Capitol graduates. “It was tough. ... We changed coaches, and people were saying the school might not stay open. We started together with the Lions, South Baton Rouge Jaguars and Rams. When we met up at high school, the chemistry was there. We all decided to stay.”
Like Coleman at Belaire and Capitol’s Duncan, Glen Oaks’ Clark has seen his roster grow this year.
“Last summer, we had less than 20 kids working out,” Clark said. “This summer, it was between 30 to 35, and we know we’ll pick up some more kids as school gets going.
“Community is a key part of it. Glen Oaks has always been a place where kids come here or they go to Southern Lab. That’s going to continue. What I’ve seen over the last year is more people coming back to Glen Oaks and getting involved.
“It’s no secret everybody is working to get better academically. The schools need to do a better job of promoting the programs we do have, like our medical magnet. I think all of those things will help.”
Drake, who took over less than two months ago as EBR’s superintendent, agrees. Drake has some big goals for athletics.
“I think the overarching thing is we want to build pride back in our schools. Athletics plays a role in that,” Drake said. “Those programs teach leadership, time management, structure and teamwork and discipline. They also instill a sense of pride.
“My vision for this is that, if we get more kids involved, we get more parents involved. Then with more parents involved, you get the high school experience. You don’t just learn in a classroom. You learn walking down the hall through interactions with teachers and other students or at lunch. You learn from a pep rally, when you take a field trip or through being part of a club or a sport.
“My hope is that we’ll have a Broadmoor-Tara football game that’s so big it has to be moved back to Olympia Stadium. And McKinley-Scotlandville will pack Memorial Stadium. The rivalries that used to be here aren’t anymore. We need them back, or we need to build new ones.”