Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 10:58 p.m.
Sensing his players didn’t understand the school’s storied football history when he took over as head coach at El Camino High last year, Pulu Poumele marched his squad into the gymnasium.
There on a wall hangs a brown and gold banner listing the Wildcats’ section championships: 1976, 1982, 1984, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1999. Eight titles. Four in a five-year span.
Of the history lesson, Wildcats senior Ryan Ena said, “It changed players’ mindsets. (We thought) why not continue the legacy?”
The Wildcats (5-5) open the San Diego Section Division I playoffs tonight, hosting Otay Ranch (6-4). While a .500 record won’t awaken the ghosts of El Camino greats like Toussaint Tyler, Dokie Williams and Bryant Westbrook, it’s a start. Consider that El Camino suffered losing records six of the past seven seasons, including a 4-8 mark in Poumele’s first season.
“We’re taking baby steps,” El Camino Principal Dan Daris said.
Daris knows football. He was the section Player of the Year in 1975 at Oceanside High and was an assistant coach for 10 years under Herb Meyer, the architect of El Camino’s tradition.
Last Friday the Wildcats took a Bob Beamonesque, how-did-they-do-that leap toward respectability, beating crosstown rival Oceanside 24-14. The Pirates, winners of six straight section titles, were soundly beaten, not scoring until the fourth period. Oceanside had won eight of the previous nine meetings between the schools.
How stunning was the upset?
El Camino players said the week of the game students and teachers at school asked them not if they were going to upset Oceanside, but by how many points were they going to lose.
“I’m serious,” said running back Xavier Finney. “Teachers and staff members. They didn’t believe in us.”
After the game, Poumele was approached by Oceanside coach John Carroll.
“Pulu, congratulations,” Carroll said as he shook Poumele’s hand. “Your kids played a heckuva game.”
Poumele was an all-section lineman as a senior in 1989 at Oceanside High, Carroll’s first year as Pirates head coach. He was an assistant under Carroll from 2000 to 2007, serving as defensive coordinator the last four seasons.
A towering presence at 6 feet 3, 315 pounds, Poumele described earning his mentor’s praise as “humbling.”
“It was special (beating Carroll),” said Poumele. “A lot of what I do I learned from him, preparation and attention to detail. He’s always been a resource to me. I respect him with every inch of my mind and body.”
Poumele, 38, said his first challenge at El Camino was changing the culture, specifically what’s expected from the players. He implemented a taxing circuit drill in the summer of 2009, the players running steps, jumping rope, running up ramps and executing quick-feet drills with minimum rest.
“We didn’t do this last year,” one of the players said.
“That’s right, you didn’t,” replied Poumele. “And I don’t care whether you like it or not. This is my ship, and I’m going to run it the way I want. There’s a road right there, and you can take off if you want.”
Said sophomore Justin Williams, a starting fullback and linebacker and the team’s leading rusher, “He demands 100 percent and we respect that.”
Poumele’s expectations extend to the classroom. He requires that players be passing five classes with no grade lower than a “C,” standards that are stricter than the Oceanside Unified School District and the San Diego Section.
He said coaches check on the players’ progress weekly. If a player slips below Poumele’s standards, they’re required to attend study hall. If they miss more than one study hall they sit out at least one quarter of a game. More than one starter has missed playing time this season because they didn’t meet Poumele’s standards.
“Football is our vehicle to teach kids real life lessons,” Poumele said. “I want to mold men as well as football players. That’s why I’m in it.”