SOUTH GATE -- Make no mistake, South East High has never been known as a hotbed for recruiting high-profile prep football prospects from the Southland.
That is, until now. Thanks in large part to Robert Lewis.
The senior running back is one of the nation's premier players. Lewis is so highly thought of, in fact, scouts from all over the country traveling to the West Coast these days schedule a pit-stop at once relatively obscure South East in an effort to keep tabs on him.
“I'm a Jaguar for life, the school is close to my house, in my neighborhood and 10 minutes away, this is where I belong,'' Lewis said. “It doesn't matter where you're from, if you stay focused and work hard, people will come and find you. That's the way I was raised.''
Division I college coaches normally travel to nearby Los Angeles City Sections schools such as Carson, Crenshaw and Narbonne in search of talent. In terms of discovering the next potential star at the next level, other must-stops along the way typically tend to be Southern Section programs Gardena Serra, Long Beach Poly and Los Angeles Cathedral, to name a few.
Lewis, however, has successfully put the Jaguars (5-0 overall) on the map heading into Friday night's Eastern League game against visiting L.A. Roosevelt (2-2)
The school, mind you, is in only its sixth year of existence.
“The thing about Robert is, he's as loyal as they come,'' said Derwin Henderson, in his first year as South East coach. “When I got the job, he called right away and told me that we were going to win a championship here. This coming from a teenager, I was impressed.
“I'm sure Robert had his pick of high school schools to play for, kids switch programs all the time. He wanted to break the mold though. Robert started at South East with his friends and he wanted to finish at South East with his friends. In this day and age, with everything that goes on, I have to say that his decision to stay put is refreshing to see. It doesn't happen often.''
Lewis did indeed have his pick of schools, albeit in the college ranks. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound tailback committed to Southern Methodist (SMU) in late February. Also worth mentioning is he had several scholarship offers on the table at the time of his decision.
Cincinnati, West Virginia, Ole Miss and Ohio State are among a handful of schools still hoping Lewis ends up changing his mind. Several Pac-12 Conference programs, most notably Oregon, have offered him as well. Utah and Colorado are among others in the mix too.
For the time being, it appears as if the Mustangs are the best fit.
“I'm committed to SMU, coach June Jones offered me first and I like what the program has to offer,'' Lewis said. “I talk to the coaching staff over there all the time. They have always kept things real with me, I like that. They don't tell me just the things I like to hear.
“It's early in the recruiting process, so I'm listening to other colleges. I think that things are going to get bigger and better for me. When Oregon offered, I was shocked. It made me think about things. My plan is to take some recruiting trips and see what is out there.''
Lewis opened plenty of eyes as a sophomore. He rushed for 1,085 yards on 137 carries, 7.9 yards per touch. Averaging 14 yards per reception, 21 yards per kickoff return and 23 yards per punt return were indications of his immense potential. All told, he scored 11 times.
Accordingly, Lewis took the next step in his rapid development as a junior. Despite the fact many opposing defensive coordinators designed game plans around stopping him, he managed to amass more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and finished with 18 touchdowns.
His production has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be. ESPN recruiting experts rank Lewis as the nation's No. 11 player at his position for the 2012 class.
“I have known Robert for a long time now, you know, he was the ball boy for us when the school first opened,'' said former Jaguars coach Roger Satti, who helped guide Lewis during his first three years at South East. Satti is currently director of operations at the school.
“You could tell Robert was something special from the start,'' he added. “I always told him if he went somewhere other than South East he would be a small fish in a big pond. Here, he is the big fish in a small pond. Things have worked out well, I'm happy for him.
“His loyalty is what sets him apart from most kids his age. That comes from his father and his family. What most people don't see or understand is how important Robert Lewis is to this community, both on and off the field. He was born and bred to be a South East Jaguar.''
No one is going to argue with the results Lewis has enjoyed. Unfinished business still remains. There are a couple of important things that need to be addressed.
“I won't be satisfied until we win a City Section Division II championship here at South East, that's the plan, it's been that way since the start of my freshman year,'' Lewis said. “If we go out and win a title, people will talk about us and what we did for years to come.
“I also want to rush for 2,000 yards and have 500 or more yards receiving. I want to do it all. My senior year before I leave South East for college, this is it. I'm going to leave it all out there on the field every Friday night. I don't want to look back and have any regrets.''
So far, so good. He is well on his way to achieving both goals.
With five games already in the books, the Jaguars are heading in the right direction and considered by most to be one of the City Section's bigger surprises this season. Individually, Lewis has gained more than 800 all-purpose yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
Whether he reaches the benchmarks, or not, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Lewis has done his best to change the perception about South East.
“There are exceptions to the rule sometimes, Robert has proven that to be true, he's stirred up interest in our program here at South East in a way I don't think that many other individuals could have done,'' Henderson said. “As a coach, players like him come around once in a lifetime. Robert Lewis is a name to remember. He won't be forgotten around here any time soon.''
Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.