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Buena Park enjoying the benefits of its transformation
BUENA PARK – Anthony White chuckles when he recalls the first time he came across a college recruiter on Buena Park’s campus.
He claims the man was lost; he was looking for nearby Servite, and was in need of directions.
That was 2010, White’s first season as Buena Park’s football coach.
He can laugh about it now because those types of encounters are a thing of the past. They are distant memories of where this program has come from.
The team that won a total of eight games in the six seasons leading up to White’s arrival is now an emerging county power on the field - the Coyotes are 4-0 and ranked No. 13 in the county heading into their game Friday night.
Nowadays, recruiters plan their day around a visit to Buena Park’s campus, which has become a launching point for players into the college ranks.
On this year’s roster, senior wide receivers Jeremiah Hawkins and Taariq Johnson have already committed to Cal. Offensive tackle Ryan Nelson announced this week his intentions to attend Virginia. Defensive back Elijah Gates owns 20-plus offers from just about every major program on the West Coast, plus Michigan and Notre Dame.
The program’s transformation has created a steady stream of transfers to the school, too. Hawkins, Gates and Johnson, plus two of the team’s other highly recruited players, senior receiver Victor Bates and junior receiver Devon Cooley, left other schools to play for the Coyotes.
How did this all come about? How did Buena Park become a school held in such high regard by recruiters, as well as players and their parents?
It started in 2010, with the arrival of White and a new principal, Jim Coombs.
“We’ve got an extremely tight-knit staff here at Buena Park when you talk about teachers working with the athletic programs,” White explained. “Buena Park academically has skyrocketed over the past six years, and that’s attributed to our principal.”
Six years after this pair of enthusiastic new generals stepped on campus, Buena Park appears to be at its peak from an athletic and academic standpoint.
The X’s-and-O’s were somewhat of a secondary concern for White upon arrival.
His first team meeting in the spring of 2010 drew a dozen interested bodies, a byproduct of the constant losing the program had experienced. When he finally was able to corral others to boost the roster size, keeping everyone eligible was the first priority.
“At Buena Park it’s hard,” he said. “I got to make sure everybody eats. Make sure everybody gets to school on time. Make sure everyone’s in class.”
White started an academic boot camp for the team, and it is now a Saturday staple. White and several other staff members open up classrooms at 6 a.m. on the weekend for any student in need of tutoring or extra supervision on a class assignment.
The focus on academics has opened up a constant dialogue for White, the players and their teachers.
“When you look at a football program, the coach is going to spend more time with your kid than his own kid,” said Curtis Harvey, whose son Deshaun starts at quarterback for the Coyotes. “So there needs to be a great relationship with the coach. The structure and consistency that Coach White had developed, that’s what I wanted for Deshaun.
“He holds every kid accountable. And the parents too.”
White’s star talents understand his primary policy.
“You don’t have the grades, you don’t play,” Taariq Johnson said. “Coach is always on us about that.”
He’s that way for a reason.
White, who played defensive back at Utah in the early 2000s, wants his players to understand the importance of academics, maturity and accountability. As he tells them, it’s not about the next four years, it’s about the next 40.
All students at Buena Park now have a chance to earn college credits for a UC or Cal State University school through courses being taught at the school. There is an eight-week SAT prep course, which is free for any student that attends each session. That, Harvey notes, can save a parent of upwards of $800.
Last year, Buena Park was ranked among the top 1,000 high schools nationwide by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. It was honored as a Gold Ribbon School by the state department of education.
“It goes back to perception, what people think Buena Park is versus the reality,” White said. “It’s the most diverse school in Orange County. If you want to send your kid to college, it’s all about diversity. It’s about being with students that don’t have everything, but being at the top of your class and working hard to get those things.”
Deshaun Harvey attended a private catholic school while growing up, and that’s where his family started their search when it began to look at potential high schools for him in the area.
The Harveys looked at Servite and Mater Dei and others with strong academic and athletic reputations, but in the end, it was the school in their neighborhood, Buena Park, that impressed them the most.
“We were friends with (former Buena Park recevier) Jaylinn Hawkins, so we saw the structure it was adding to his life and the opportunities he was being afforded,” Curtis Harvey said. “When we got to Buena Park, we got more than what we initially expected. Great principal. Great athletic director. And then Coach White, obviously.”
Jaylinn Hawkins was one of White’s first high-profile recruits, signing with Cal after the 2014 season. Hawkins’ younger brother, JoJo, is a sophomore starter at Buena Park, and one of their relatives, Jeremiah, might be the most explosive open-field player in the county.
Johnson (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) transferred to Buena Park last year, as did Bates, the team’s top deep-ball threat. Bates leads the team in receiving yards (383), yards per reception (31.9) and touchdown catches (6).
“It was about college readiness for me,” Johnson said of transferring to Buena Park. “I’m lining up against these guys and Elijah Gates every day. So there’s nothing you can throw at us that we haven’t seen before at practice.”
The Coyotes also have Cooley, who has received an offer from UCLA, giving them a quartet of D1-bound receivers that challenges Mater Dei’s group for the most talented group in the county.
“It’s no struggle at all,” Deshaun Harvey, a junior, said of finding an open target during games. “I just got to get the ball in their hands and they’ll make the play. If I miss something, it’s all on me.”
Harvey is fifth in Orange County for yards passing (1,191), and he has 16 touchdowns and one interception. He has thrown TD passes to seven different receivers, and that versatility is one of the reasons the Coyotes have outscored their opponents, 193-6.
With their success has come criticism. Those in the program acknowledge the rumblings they hear from outsiders. The Coyotes have been called “overrated,” and there has been much chatter about the team’s influx of transfers.
White has a simple, but multi-layered response.
“Parents want to do what’s best for their sons,” he said, “and rather than their sons sit the bench at some of these other schools, you can set up your (son’s) future and get a $300,000 scholarship.
“The thing is, it’s not just about football. It’s about life. It’s about becoming a great man. Everyone that truly knows me knows that’s what I’m about first.
“I’m not from Orange County, so a lot of things were left up to their own perception. Teams that play against us, people that really know me, know what I’m really about deep down in my heart, and that’s family.”
Buena Park’s toughest tests are still to come this season, and the first major challenge comes Friday, when it travels to face St. Francis of La Canada.
Like the Coyotes, St. Francis is 4-0 and considered a contender for the Division 3 championship.
There’s also Buena Park’s highly anticipated showdown with La Habra on Oct. 21, a game that will almost assuredly determine the Freeway League title.
“We stay focused on the team we’re playing,” Jeremiah Hawkins said. “We go week by week. But on a personal level, yeah, we keep up with what La Habra’s doing.”
Beating the Highlanders and capturing a league title is the next logical step in the program’s rise. The Coyotes, as well as the rest of the Freeway League, has played second fiddle to La Habra for the better part of the last decade.
“My goal every day is to have our players better themselves,” White said. “I think the only team that really can stop us is ourselves. We’re just going to have to be there mentally, physically and emotionally every day, moving forward.”
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