By Aram Tolegian, Staff Writer
Friday night’s Hall of Fame All-Star Game will be a going-away party not only for the area’s top players, but for one of its top coaches as well. When San Gabriel High School’s Keith Jones leads the West into action just after 7 p.m. at Baldwin Park High, he’ll begin the final four quarters of a career that won’t soon be forgotten around these parts, and certainly not around the Matadors’ campus, where he took a lackluster program and made it into one of the area’s best. (To continue, click thread).
Jones is retiring after a long career that saw him serve under another recently retired legend – Gil Ruedaflores of Alhambra – before heading out on his own to change San Gabriel from an also-ran into a defensive’s coordinator’s nightmare beginning in 1998.
“I’m sitting here right now thinking about the game,” Jones said Monday afternoon. “I’m about to get out a sheet of paper and start making my play sheet.
“What am I going to feel on Friday night? It will be interesting to see. We’ll just see what the ebb and flow of the game is.
“I will definitely miss it. Doing the grade checks, the insurance and the paper work, that’s the stuff I’m not going to miss, but the Friday-night stuff, getting the kids ready, that’s the cool part.”
Any area fan with only a brief range of history knows that San Gabriel sat dormant until Jones arrived. From that point on, though, the Matadors attacked with an offense that put up eye-popping numbers and racked up victories in the process. And the architect of it all was Jones, who said he made San Gabriel’s wide-open attack out of necessity.
“We were going up against teams like Bell Gardens and Schurr, and in all honesty I thought, `We’re not going to be able to pound those people so we need to do something else,’ ” Jones said.
“I had athletes and I realized that some of the teams we go up against never see teams that throw the ball. If you don’t see it every week, it’s very hard to simulate in practice. It’s going to be hard to get a scout team ready to go, so the first time they’ll see it is Friday night and by the time they get used to it, the game is over.”
San Gabriel went 2-8 in Jones’ first season, but the storm was brewing. The Matadors gradually got better, and the Jones era was punctuated by an amazing playoff run in 2003.
San Gabriel entered the CIF-Southern Section Division VII playoffs that season as the third-place team out of the Almont League. The Matadors reeled off three consecutive victories, including an upset of No. 1-seeded Santa Fe, before falling to South Hills in the championship.
Not only did the 2003 team become just the third San Gabriel team to even make the playoffs, it also picked up the school’s first postseason victory. For Jones, who grew up in San Gabriel and attended Cantwell, no memory is sweeter.
“It was inspirational the way that team itself just had a spirit of its own,” Jones said. “There were very little discipline problems. We were all in the same boat. It was kind of on auto pilot.”
Jones took the 2004 season off but was back at it in 2005. San Gabriel went on to reach the playoffs in four of the next five seasons, including ’07 when the Matadors won the Almont League and lost in the second round of the playoffs as the No. 1 seed to eventual champion La Habra.
Don’t expect much to change at San Gabriel with Jones stepping aside. Jude Oliva, one of Jones’ most loyal assistants, is the new head coach and he inherits a program that Jones leaves with a strong blueprint for success.
“I don’t think anything I did was that original, I just stole from a lot of people,” Jones said with a laugh. “I guess I’m going to go try and catch a fish now. I know that Jude is ready to go. And if he needs my help, I’m willing to help.”