Hoover High fullback Jesse Pina has returned to a large role with the Tornadoes football team in his senior season.

Hoover High fullback Jesse Pina has returned to a large role with the Tornadoes football team in his senior season. (Roger Wilson/Staff Photographer / October 31, 2012)

Two years ago, Jesse Pina looked to be a rising star in the Hoover High football program.

In the mind of Pina, following his breakout sophomore campaign, he had already arrived.

“Pretty much I came in [junior] year thinking I was badass and I really wasn’t,” says Pina, now a senior.

Poor practice habits and a self-centered attitude got Pina off on the wrong foot with first-year coach Andrew Policky and his coaching staff and a short-term demotion to junior varsity intended to snap Pina out of his funk had much the opposite effect. Soon he was dismissed from the team and the football career of Jesse Pina appeared to have flamed out just as quickly as it started..

It could have been the end to a quickly concluded cautionary tale, but after working his way back onto the team after a year of introspection and reinvention, Pina won’t have to look back at would could have been. Instead he will pen the last chapter of his own season-long story of redemption when he dons the purple and white one final time in Friday’s “Battle for the Victory Bell” against rival Glendale at Moyse Field.

“It kind of helped me out in a way,” Pina said of losing football for a year. “It just taught me more about responsibility and how important the team is.”

Pina, in turn, has been pretty important to the Tornadoes’ own turnaround in his roll at fullback. The team looks for its fourth win of the year in the season finale against the Nitros and second in the Pacific League after going winless last season.

“He was a big factor, he could have been a huge asset our junior year, but we’re happy we have him now,” senior guard Juan Lomeli says.

Pina leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns and, according to Policky, has been a model teammate.

“He’s done a real good job of [earning his way back],” Policky says. “He’s having a really good year.

“He’s kept his nose clean, stayed out of trouble, we haven’t had any problems with him whatsoever and his practice habits have improved a great deal.”

Policky’s decision to banish Pina likely couldn’t have been an easy one, as the 716 receiving yards and three touchdowns he racked up as a sophomore wide receiver while making the All-Area second team showed plenty of promise.

“I coached him then and I knew then that he had the potential to be a good football player,” says Policky, who was a Hoover assistant when Pina was a sophomore. “He’s a very good athlete, for as big as he is, he moves very well and he has a lot of skill. He can catch the ball, he does everything a player needs to do — he punts the ball, he kicks for us, he can do all of those things. Potentially, we knew we had a very good football player, it was just a matter of getting him to buy into it and put in the work.”

Once Pina had shown he was ready to get with the program, he still had to start at the bottom once again, competing for a spot in tryouts in the spring. Early on, though, it was clear his days as a receiver were behind him.

“Just the direction we were going offensively, we didn’t think we’d be able to get him enough touches if he played wide receiver,” Policky says. “For us, it was how do we maximize his touches and how do we get him in a position where he can help us the most.”

Pina started out at wingback, but, at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, eventually found his fit at fullback.

“I thought it was a new experience and I wanted to try something new coming back,” Pina said. “With them giving me chance, I thought it would be something new.”

It would be hard to dream up a better start to the season for Pina, who caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening 46-0 win over Blair before running wild over South Pasadena the next week.

Pina rushed for 216 yards in 20 carries and all five of the team’s touchdowns, including the game-winner, in a 33-28 victory that got the Tornadoes off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2005.

“It was awesome,” Pina says of the helping the Tornadoes open the season with back-to-back wins. “My sophomore year we won one game and starting this year off with a winning record felt amazing.”

It was hard to hide Pina following his early success, but he continued to put up solid numbers even in losses, as when he piled up 110 yards and a touchdown in 24 carries in a defeat to Burbank on Sept. 20.

“The Blair game, everybody had success, but when we got to that second game at South Pasadena and played a little stiffer competition, he had a huge game for us,” Policky says. “That second game was kind of what put him on the map.”

Pina topped the 100-yard mark once again in the Tornadoes’ first league win against an opponent other than Glendale since 1986 when they defeated Pasadena, 37-8, on Oct. 12. He rushed for 138 yards in 20 carries and opened the scoring with a nine-yard touchdown run. Leading into the final game of the year, he has 815 yards rushing and a chance to become the first Tornado since 2004 to hit 1,000 yards. Thus far, he’s notched 1,022 total yards and 10 total touchdowns.

“He just follows his blocks and if he doesn’t find a hole, he just makes one himself,” Lomeli says.

Friday may mark the most rewarding night yet of Pina’s redemption tour, simply because of the atmosphere of the “Battle”, let alone if the Tornadoes are able to pull out a victory, which would be Pina’s first in his second attempt.

“After I heard that I couldn’t come back my junior year, I wasn’t expecting to come back my senior year,” Pina says. “I was going to go through my senior year and just try to graduate.

“It’s really boosted my confidence because I didn’t even think I was going to start.”