Clovis News: Sports

Laton enlivened by high school football success

LATON -- The couple-hundred-yard drive east down DeWoody Street and through downtown Laton is as eclectic as it is brief: post office, library, empty hardware store, empty doctor's office, market, activity center, Mexican restaurant, adjoining barber/beauty shops, Methodist church and three homes.

Then, on the right-hand side of the road, appears a 105-year-old high school not only still standing, but occupied. And here, in this Fresno County community of about 1,400, this is a considerable measure of accomplishment.

The mere existence of Laton High School, understand, has been on life support for what, 10, 20, 30 years?

"I bet they hear about it at every board meeting," says Ryan Lewis, an off-campus football coach and 2000 graduate whose 3-1 team has uplifted the 195-member student body and community.

"When I was in school, they talked about putting us, Riverdale and Caruthers in one school; we all used the same buses. We also heard about the state taking over the school."

The primary educational options are Hanford and its three high schools a few miles to the south, similarly sized Riverdale to the west, Lemoore to the southwest and Kingsburg to the northeast.

Why the loyalty to Laton, which doesn't have a gas station or doctor?

"This high school means too much to the community," principal Jim Reed says. "There is a very proud history."

That's reflected in part by a banner stretching over the width of DeWoody in the middle of downtown: "Congratulations Laton FFA -- A Nationally Distinguished 3 Star Gold Award Chapter 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010."

The football team is not distinguished on a national, state or section level -- going 4-26 the past three years.

But on campus the Mustangs might as well be stampeding toward the Super Bowl with a 22-member roster that's actually quite large for the program.

Not too far removed from a couple of years of eight-man football and, much less, a brief period when they couldn't even field a team, they won their first three games this season. And even the old-timers around town can't remember when that last happened.

"It's helped a lot," athletic director Ron Pack says. "When sports are successful, it helps the kids' academics because they want to stay on the team and stay part of something exciting, so they work hard to keep their grades up.

"The school culture is a lot more positive. Students are going to games now where they otherwise might not. You can feel the excitement when you walk around campus on a Friday."

The impact has also spilled over to the community.

"More people are coming out because we're winning," senior quarterback Ricky Lemus says. "Last year, the crowd would leave at halftime; this year, they're all staying."

Lemus depicts the demands asked of a small-school player, particularly a good athlete such as him.

Participating in football for the first time as a sophomore, he played tight end and defensive end as a 5-foot-7, 140-pounder.

As a junior, he played wide receiver and tight end on offense and "everything" on defense.

And this year, now at 5-9, 160, he's starting at quarterback and safety.

He'd never played quarterback in his life. But Lewis recognized a winner in the offseason.

"He's a smart, dedicated player, a straight-A student and a good kid," Lewis says. "He could throw for 200 yards and three touchdowns, but it would mean nothing to him if we didn't win."

Other impact players include quick running back/safety Johnathan Covian, who has averaged 8.4 yards a carry while delivering 713 yards rushing and six touchdowns, two-way lineman Ralph Montejano and running back/linebacker Sergio Arciga.

Standout tight end/linebacker Mason Alves, however, has been lost for the season with a knee injury.

It's one thing for a Division I Clovis West to lose a star, quite another for a D-VI Laton, given the minimal resources.

And the timing stings considering the Mustangs' monster home-field assignment tonight -- unbeaten Division V power Caruthers (4-0).

"We've got a shot," says the ever-believing Lewis, the key to the program's resurgence.

And Reed adds: "Ryan's inspirational leadership, his high standards and the effect he's had on coaches, parents and kids has really put us on the right track."

A correctional officer at an Avenal prison, six-year husband of Melissa and father to Andrew and Nathan, ages 5 and 1, the 28-year-old Lewis returns his $2,400 coaching stipend to the football fund.

His assistants do likewise, anything to keep afloat a program that must fundraise to finance basics such as mouthpieces and hip pads.

"We're not out here for the money," says Lewis, standing next to a pair of tattered, gold blocking pads.

"I love football, I know these kids and their families, and this is my part to give back to Laton."

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