Above: Crenshaw High Principal Lenalda Corley and the school’s varsity football team were honored for the Cougars’ first-ever state championship.

Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and the Board of Education paid tribute Tuesday to Crenshaw High’s football team, which won the school’s first-ever CIF state championship with its hard-fought 43-46 win over Auburn’s Placer High.

Playing on Crenshaw’s home turf, defensive back Joseph Williams intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final play of the game to clinch the California Interscholastic Federation’s Division 4-AA championship.

The Board of Education applauds the Crenshaw Cougars football team.

“We still can’t believe we won,” said senior running back Solomon Hassen, who managed to move the ball nearly 200 yards in carries and passes. “We are just living in the moment now. It was the first time this had happened, so it’s a big deal.”

Senior defensive tackle and left guard Sahbri White recalls feeling emotional when the team won.

“I honestly wanted to cry,” he said. “Nobody thought we could do it. So…to prove everyone wrong…it meant something. Nobody had ever done this before. To be the first team to actually do it? Nobody can ever take that from us.”

Ekchian and Board Member Dr. George McKenna, whose board district includes Crenshaw, offered special congratulations to the team and the coaches.

“We honor these remarkable young men for their extraordinary hard work, perseverance, talent and success,” Ekchian said. “We also honor the adults who played a significant role in guiding the student athletes to victory.”

A former athlete himself, McKenna spoke of the important role that football plays in high school.

“Nothing bonds young men together the way football does,” he said. “They have to protect one another and look out for one another in a very rugged and sometimes dangerous sport. So, these young men learn to work as a team and look out for one another in ways that few others have the opportunity to do.”

Crenshaw student athletes accept special honors from the Board of Education.

Ekchian and the board stood and applauded Robert Garrett, who has coached for Crenshaw for 30 years and who recently was named the Don Shula National Coach of the Year by the National Football League (NFL).

“I humbly accept this recognition,” the coach said. “It gives me the courage to put in another 30 years. I also want to take this opportunity to call upon our community to support these outstanding young men. They need and deserve all the support you can show them.”

Crenshaw Principal Lenalda Corley addressed the Board as well expressing pride in the students.

“Many of these students are not only the top athletes in their school but are the top in academics as well,” he said. “This is a testament to the leadership of Coach Garrett who doesn’t get enough recognition for all the hundreds of lives he has changed over the years.”

Before returning to school, the students and coaches took a few minutes to reflect on a job well done, many talking about plans for next year.

“My next goal will be to graduate college,” Hassen said. “I have enjoyed playing football at Crenshaw and would love to be able to continue playing if I can. I think some of my teammates could go pro.”

Hassens’ vision is not far fetched. Six former Cougars are currently playing in the NFL.

Even so, the students remain focused on academic success.

School Board member Dr. George J. McKenna III, right, congratulates Crenshaw’s award-winning coach Robert Garrett.

“Next year I will attending the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth,” Hassen said. “I am going to earn a degree in business. Eventually I want to be the head of a company.”

Senior running back Mark Martin doesn’t yet know which college he will attend, but his career goals are clear.

“I want to be an engineer,” said Martin, who is acing his AP Calculus class. “Any kind of engineering would be great. As long as I get to use a lot of math.”

Senior middle line backer Nygel Lewis is already slated to attend Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana. He plans to attend law school after he graduates.

“I want to have a career in the business side of athletics,” he said. “I want to provide legal guidance to guys who are just like me, making sure their finances are protected during and after their careers.”

For the moment, however, Lewis is still focused on Dec. 16, when he and his teammates won the state title.

“Anyone can be a champion,” he said. “The key is to work hard day in and day out and keep showing up and doing what you do. Even after tough losses when it hurts, you keep grinding through. Never give up. Always chase your dreams, and if you keep going, you will make them come true.”

Click here to watch a video of the recognition ceremony.