It’s been a year of loss and tragedy for much of the world, and it’s been a brutal year for the Long Beach Poly community. A number of Poly football players have lost parents, grandparents, or other family members over the last 12 months and the program is dealing with the loss of beloved longtime volunteer coach Keith “Slice” Thompson as well. With football gone for months, players didn’t believe they’d get a chance to play together.
“I had no hope we were going to play at this point,” said senior wide receiver Keyontae Lanier.
Then came the surprise announcement that California was reversing its position and allowing a season to take place.
“The kids were very excited,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “I got to tell them we’re handing out helmets and they couldn’t wait to get out there that day. Administratively there’s so much work to do but it’s just the joy, to see these kids get to go out and do something they love after everything they’ve been through is pretty awesome.”
The players aren’t the only ones excited. The Poly football team holds a special significance in its neighborhood, and on Tuesday evening during a practice under the lights, there were a few dozen fans standing along the fence on MLK Blvd. watching practice, and cars driving by would occasionally honk and flash their headlights.
“Everybody likes to watch Poly football, it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” said senior linebacker Bryun Parham. “Everyone can just come together and watch us play.”
The team they’ll be playing is loaded with talent all around the field, and Barbee can’t wait to watch his team in action. They’ll be wearing “Slice” decals on their helmet to honor their former coach, and they’ll even be playing some games at their campus stadium, Burcham Field, under the lights for the first time in the 100+ year history of the Poly football program.
“These kids have not taken one day off,” said Barbee. “We’ve had 6 a.m. workouts, they’ve stayed focused on their team and their grades, and it’s amazing for them to be able to put that on display.”
The Jackrabbits open up with a nonleague game against Serra at Cabrillo on Friday, then face the Moore League slate including marquee games against Wilson (on the campus field for the first time) and finishing the season against Millikan.
The Jackrabbits feature a strong mix of veteran talent and impressive newcomers.
“We have a lot of big pieces coming back,” said Barbee. “We were young last year and we saw glimpses of how good this team could be towards the end of the season with a win against Orange Lutheran.”
Defensively Poly has a loaded team up front with Army signee Jacob Tuitoi and standout underclassmen Donovan Poe and Wendell Moe. They’re joined by Justin Blount, David Bakalar and Jalen Johnson, and backed up by a talented linebacking corps that will feature San Jose State signee Bryun Parham, sophomore stud Ike Mikaele, Lamar Black, and Jeremiah Fort. Poly’s defensive backs are as good as it gets with Torion White, Donovan Turner, Anthony Curtis, sophomore Daylen Austin (who’s racked up a dozen scholarship offers in the last month), Jalen Duncan, and Travis “Mookie” Davis.
“We’ve got great guys at every position and they’re going to get a chance to prove themselves,” said Barbee.
Offensively, the Jackrabbits’ offensive line is unmatched in the city this year, with a talented group of returners that includes Michael Fesili, Tyson Ruffins, Justin Mataia, Brandon Pati, Moe, and Nathan Samoa–that group averages six foot tall and in the 280-pound weight class. Devin Samples and Jaden Bridges will be a one-two punch out of the backfield.
Junior quarterback Shea Kuykendall has really emerged this offseason as a leader on the team, and he’ll have his pick of playmakers to choose from with one of the tallest and most athletic receiving corps Poly has had in a decade. The top name is New Mexico signee Keyonta Lanier, with Jordan Riles, Kyren Racheal, and Nasir Magee all contributing.
Poly has its third consecutive strong freshman class, and things are looking up at 1600 Atlantic.
“We’re really excited about the things happening here, we can’t wait to get out there and put on a show for the city,” said Barbee.
3/12 vs. Serra @ Cabrillo
3/19 @ Lakewood
3/26 vs. Wilson @ Cabrillo
4/1 vs. Compton
4/9 @ Jordan
4/16 vs. Millikan