Jim McElroy, 43, was once the fastest athlete in the City Section, winning the 100 and 200 meters in 1994. He was an All-American football player at Washington Prep and a standout receiver at UCLA, playing for coaches Terry Donahue and Bob Toledo. But all that was a mere warmup to his true calling in life — being a high school football coach.
He proudly watched his Gardena High (9-4) football team complete a turnaround on Saturday at El Camino College, winning the City Section Division III championship with a 14-8 victory over previously unbeaten Huntington Park Marquez. Gardena had consecutive 0-10 seasons before McElroy arrived last season.
When the Panthers started this season 5-0, Gardena fans thought life was great. Then came a 68-14 thumping by Inglewood and four consecutive losses to Marine League foes. Suddenly, Gardena players were thinking about the dismal past.
“This has been a tough time trying to get over psychologically the two years of 0-10 seasons and trying to get these guys to believe,” McElroy said. “It’s been the hardest coaching job I’ve done.”
Gardena certainly believed in its defense on Saturday. Deajon Little had two interceptions and junior Tyrone McDaniel had three sacks and a fumble recovery. Little made his second interception at the three-yard line with 1:56 left, and the Panthers eventually ran out the clock by taking a safety as time expired.
“It’s been a blessing to be working hard all year,” said Little, who began his career as a freshman playing at Hawkins before returning to his home school as a sophomore.
McDaniel was holding the championship plaque when he said, “That thing is kind of cute. It means everything. It’s an upset and now we’re champions. They couldn’t hold me.”
Marquez (13-1) was stopped four times inside the 15-yard line. Quarterback Erick Salas completed 23 of 38 passes for 258 yards with three interceptions. He was sacked four times.
Little rushed for 66 yards and scored a touchdown. Daquan Paul also ran for a touchdown.
McElroy wants to build his program with an emphasis on local kids.
“We want community kids to be part of our program,” he said. “We play for our community school. The kids we have on our team, the majority are Gardena kids. We have a couple who started off at Gardena, they moved and came back.
“That’s what we want. We want kids in the area to stay because they believe in what we’re doing. We’re trying to do it the right way.”
Gardena advances to play in a CIF regional bowl game next weekend.
Missing trophy: The City Section Open Division perpetual trophy is missing. Harbor City Narbonne was supposed to return the trophy so it could be presented on Friday night to the winning team, which turned out to be Lake Balboa Birmingham. But City Section commissioner Vicky Lagos said Narbonne’s administration reported the trophy can’t be located.
Narbonne was banned from this year’s playoffs and forced to forfeit nine victories because of multiple ineligible players. The Gauchos were the five-time defending champions but were forced to vacate last year’s title because of an ineligible player.
State bowl games: The CIF will announce state bowl matchups on Sunday afternoon. Regional games will be played next weekend, followed by the state bowl championships Dec. 13-14. The top divisional finals will be played at Cerritos College.