Raul Lara couldn't stop the bleeding with his two thumbs or with any emergency triage-unit tourniquets.
His Long Beach Poly (Calif.)
football team was hemorrhaging first downs, touchdowns and any reputation of being the proverbial bully against Narbonne (Harbor City) in the heat of September. Then the severity of the situation hit the veteran coach with a question from a referee.
"Coach, would you like to go with a mercy-rule running clock?"
A running clock. Poly football. In what universe did we suddenly slip into here?
That's how utterly grim it was early this season when a year full of promise nearly barreled into the ditch after a 56-0 shelling at the hands of Narbonne.
"We were embarrassed, and we were ridiculed," Lara said in reflection this week. "We endured a lot. Brutal start."
And that running clock suggestion? Lara laughed it off and told the white hat that if his team was going to get its collective fannies kicked, then let the kicking continue to the bloody end.
A week later, more butt-whupping. Bakersfield rolled 29-6. Poly sat at 1-3. Players offered blank expressions and slumped shoulders.
That Monday, Lara gathered his team and offered a reminder that the season could still be salvaged and produce a champion.
"I canceled the weight room and film session that day and we met in the auditorium," Lara said. "The message was this: 'Look, we can still do this. There's time. People are telling you that you are sorry, that you suck. We believe in you. Your coaches will not leave you. Buy in.'"
The Jackrabbits collectively went all in, and here they are now: rolling and resembling Poly of old. The Jackrabbits have won 11 consecutive games, including a brutal stretch in the Pac-5 postseason, generally considered as daunting a task as there is in the country.
Poly has come full circle. On Friday, Lara and his team face Granite Bay of the Sac-Joaquin Section for the CIF State Division I Bowl championship.Read Leland Gordon's Long Beach Poly-Granite Bay preview
Poly's season started with a 42-26 victory at Carson High in late August. In beating Mater Dei 35-17, the Jackrabbits celebrated the program's 19th Southern Section championship. It's the fifth for Lara, the former Poly player who has coached the Jackrabbits for 23 seasons, 12 as head coach.
Lara said he is especially pleased for his players. He said he can handle the heat that comes with leading one of the biggest pressure-cooker posts in all of high school sports.
Poly is supposed to be good. No, make that great. Good is for the other guy, the other programs. Poly fans are as loyal and passionate as they can be cutthroat and venomous.
The discord and anger from fans is enough to make a man lose his hair and have his goatee go gray — Lara is clean on top and grayish with the beard. He's hardened, however. This isn't new, the outlandish expectations of being in the Southern Section finals, and then winning it, and then reaching the CIF Bowls, and winning that, too.
Lara said he will continue to serve as a buffer between fans and his players, even if those fans are parents of those players. As teenagers, Lara said, his pupils should be allowed to grow and enjoy the high school experience, not wince at the criticism that floods fan chat forums at the bottom of media stories or when fans practically scale the railing to get close to the bench.
"Our alumni and fan base are really into this, and they can be supportive — but they can be cruel," Lara said. "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 only to a point, Lara said.
"That's my No. 1 thing — go ahead and criticize me, but not the kids," he 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.
"These are kids, and they're doing their best. They don't want to lose. We're playing great teams. It takes some teams a while to get going. But this is Poly and these are the expectations."
Lara lives to work with kids. It's his life. He coaches by day and works as a probation officer by night, generally the graveyard shift. Sleep is a rumor for this man. He cat naps. He burdens the expectations of his football program, the goals and dreams of his athletes. And he offers discipline and hope and an encouraging hand shake and smile for dozens of other teenagers on probation.
"This is my calling, coaching and probation work," Lara said. "I like working with young people. It's what I'm good at doing. If a kid is willing to be coached, or be helped, you can do so much. You can really mold lives at this age."
Lara said kids crave discipline. Even the most regal, toughest looking player who looks the part of man is still a boy at heart. Even toughness needs tough love.
"They want that discipline, need it, want it badly," Lara said. "When they don't have it, you lose them. Crazy things happen and they can get into trouble. When you give them discipline, they react and they appreciate it."
Lara isn't sure how much longer he'll coach at Poly. He sounds weary and looks tired. Yes, every coach feels this sort of exhaustion this late in the season, but the joy in winning seems to be tempered with the mounting hopes of many. Only one man fully carries that load — the head man.
Yes, Poly has a deep talent pool from a campus that holds 5,000 students. But also consider this: Poly is a public-school power that has toppled a lot of private-school powers, including in this spirited postseason run.
Lara is a key reason why.
"Coach is everything to us and this program," said Poly linebacker Jayon Brown
, a UCLA commit. "We're back to playing Poly football now and Coach is the reason why."
Lara and his staff outfoxed some of the best in the business this postseason by downing Bishop Amat (La Puente) 40-25, Mission Viejo 21-16, St. John Bosco (Bellfowler) 13-10, Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 35-17 and Clovis North (Fresno) 28-7.
Lara didn't hesitate in running power-I formations, then going with the Wildcat with direct snaps to runners, then switching quarterbacks — all in the same half.
"You do what you can do to win a game," Lara said.
But how much longer can he do this?
"I'm worn out," Lara said. "Believe me, there are times I think about moving on, but it's hard. I love this school and these kids. I was offered another job last year for more money. You don't do this for money, but still ... It'll be hard for me to leave, and I know it's coming."
Lara's youngest daughter Camille is a sophomore soccer player for the Jackrabbits. When she finishes, Lara said he could be, too.
"It's getting there," he said.
In Lara's one previous trip to the state finals, he tasted defeat. He said he lives with it every day. In 2008, Poly, ranked No. 2 in the country, fell to Grant (Sacramento) 25-20 in a classic Open thriller. He said he's reminded his Jackrabbits this week of seizing the moment, winning one for your school, for your brothers.
And yes, pleasing those fans.
Joe Davidson has covered high schools with The Sacramento Bee since 1988. Follow him on Twitter: @SacBee_JoeD; on Facebook: sacbeepreps; and online: sacbee.com/preps; and radio podcasts: ESPN1320.net.