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Desert Pines football perseveres after star players transfer

Sierra Canyon in California’s San Fernando Valley is a private preparatory school situated on manicured lawns that include hundreds of trees, flowers and a horse trail that leads into a canyon. LeBron James’ son, Bronny, attends classes there. So did Caitlyn Jenner’s daughters, Kendall and Kylie.

Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas is within shouting distance of a juvenile detention center.

So when four of the school’s top college prospects transferred to Sierra Canyon before the start of the season, it did not exactly come as a surprise to Tico Rodriguez, Desert Pines’ longtime football coach.

He still considers wide receiver Lavon Brown (committed to Colorado State) and offensive linemen Elijah Payne (committed to Arizona), Eugene Brooks and Rodney Leaks part of the Jaguars’ family, but “that’s the new age of high school football.”

Private schools that offer scholarships combined with burgeoning NIL (name, image and likeness) payments for publicity opportunities might soon serve as a de facto transfer portal for schools such as Sierra Canyon — and force others such as Desert Pines to cobble together competitive teams despite it.

“I don’t worry about what other schools have,” Rodriguez said after the Class 5A Jaguars defeated rival Foothill 40-7 on Friday. “I just focus on Desert Pines. We’re an east-side school, and I just try to do the best in my community to help us.”

Able to relate

Rodriguez pointed over the press box in the direction of the juvenile compound.

It was where he worked for an eye-opening month after moving from Miami more than 20 years ago.

Rodriguez helped process those who had lost their way owing to drugs or having committed crimes in neglected neighborhoods such as the one encompassing Desert Pines. He was the one who called parents when teenagers went astray.

He applied for a teaching and coaching job at Desert Pines with an idea: If he could make a difference as a role model, his replacement at the juvenile center might not have to make quite so many phone calls.

“Same background in Miami,” he said about identifying with the kids he coaches. “Single mother, had to learn, had great coaches in my life who were good, positive influences. I’ve been here 22 years, and we want to win, but we want to make them better men. That’s why we’re here.”

Isaac Stein, the Desert Pines’ principal who grew up on Staten Island a Yankees fan, has switched his allegiance to Rodriguez and a student body whose graduation rate had improved from 58 percent to over 90 for the four-year period before COVID hit.

Pining for more

Other coaches, teachers and administrators have moved on to other schools in more stable neighborhoods or closer to their homes. But Stein said Rodriguez remains committed to those who grew up in the shadow of the juvenile detention center.

The dedicated coach helped build and now maintains a program that has produced stalwarts such as Georgia tight end Darnell Washington, Cleveland Browns linebacker Tony Fields and former NFL offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi.

Despite the talent raid from the school in California with the bridle path, the Jaguars are 3-1 heading into Friday’s game against Dominguez (California). A season-opening 21-14 loss to an Orem (Utah) team that won Class 5A state titles in 2019 and 2020 is the only blemish.

A rambling, gambling defense patterned after the Miami Hurricanes teams Rodriguez idolized had not allowed a point in almost three games before Foothill scored on a long run against the Desert Pines reserves — 10 of them anyway.

As Rodriguez explained how one of the backup safeties didn’t get on the field in time, a stiff postgame breeze began to make the desert pines rising beyond both end zones at Desert Pines sway ever so gently.

They weren’t on a horse trail that leads to a canyon. But Tico Rodriguez said they were still beautiful, and that even after 22 years, he never tires of them.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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