Ánimo Jackie Robinson Charter High School is named after an incredible athlete that broke barriers and inspired millions. Today, Ánimo Jackie Robinson students hold steadfast to that same competing spirit in academics, leadership, and sports.
In particular, this South Los Angeles high school has, within the last decade, built a championship-winning, 8-man football team that competes in the Division II of the Los Angeles City Section of the California Interscholastic Federation. However, all of that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced high school football teams to temporarily disband for the safety of their communities.
But how did the Ánimo Jackie Robinson football team build itself back?
One Big Family
Ánimo Jackie Robinson’s boys football team formed in the Fall of 2009, and within five years, it forged a team strong enough to reach the CIF divisional playoffs. In 2015, the football team won its first championship, and later upheld a winning streak for three years between 2017 and 2019.
Both assistant coaches for the team, David Zaragoza and Gilberto Valasquez, reminisced on the incredible achievement as leaders and former players on the football team. Zaragoza and Valasquez both played on the team during its championship-winning streak.
Though an important part of the team bond is that many of the players have familial ties. At the age of 11, Zaragoza began watching his brother compete on the football team, and became enthralled with the football community since then. “I would come to practice with him every summer,” Zaragoza said. Today, many of the players have similar stories. “Most of our players have had cousins, brothers, uncles and even aunts who have played on the team, and we couldn’t be prouder of that family environment,” Velasquez added.
Valasquez, who also watched his family play on the team, joined the Ánimo Jackie Robinson Football team as an assistant coach in early 2020, and Zaragoaza began coaching in the fall of 2021. “I really love the sport. I never gave up, even though there were times where we lost, but I grew a love for teaching instead,” Valasquez said.
Rebuilding a Team
In December of 2019, the Ánimo Jackie Robinson 8-man division had just won its third consecutive Division II CIF championship, and received city-wide recognition from the Los Angeles Rams. Three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the nation to cancel in-person learning and all school-related sports participation.
While the students remained together on Zoom, they lost the physical momentum that landed their divisional team in the playoffs year after year.
“It’s been really tough,” Velasquez said. “It was difficult seeing us struggle, but we did it to find our soul again. Stepping up to the plate. Filling the big shoes that were left empty.”
This year, Zaragoza and Valasquez have helped the team get back into shape. The team works on conditioning on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and reserves field training and team bonding for Mondays and Fridays. “We believe that the weight room is a good place for us because stronger muscles means less injuries. This year we’re focusing on cardio workouts, squats, and deadlifts,” Zaragoza said.
On the field, Valasquez works with the students to help them understand their history, and why working together is an essential tool on the football field.
“We're trying to build chemistry within ourselves. Within the team. So we can help others, and so others can rely on us,” Velasquez said. “Our goal as coaches is not to win championships. It's not to win games. Obviously we love that, because it’s what comes with the sport. But we try to reach our students' hearts and minds beyond football,” he added.
Looking to the Future
While this year has been dedicated to developing the hearts and abilities of Ánimo Jackie Robinson students, the coaches are thrilled for what the next season will bring.
“I’m excited about the plays and having fun. Our players know we’re serious. They take the game seriously too. But at the end of the day, they’re just having fun out there—and we just want them to enjoy the game,” Zaragoza said. “At the end of this, we see our students treat each other like brothers.”
Kristin Botello, principal of Ánimo Jackie Robinson, is proud of the team’s 13-year history, and winning spirit.
“We have built our sports teams from the ground up, and I am extremely proud of our athletes and inspired by their dedication, commitment, self-discipline, and team spirit,” Botello said. “Our football team has been league champions three times in the last several years, and we are planning on rebuilding our team post-pandemic to take that trophy back next year! Go Monarchs!”
At Green Dot Public Schools, we are proud to support our schools with team-building opportunities through interactive clubs and sports. Through opportunities like these, we hope to help prepare our students with the skills necessary for success in college, leadership, and life.