CARSON, Calif. —
As Tiapepe Vitale
went in for the clincher and his fourth touchdown — a 2-yard run with 47 seconds left — the De La Salle (Concord, Calif.)
sideline finally exhaled.
The coaching staff, a group of extremely tight but undemonstrative men who have built arguably the nation's top football program, jumped (relatively speaking), flailed fists and did an unintentional group hug in the final seconds of the Spartans' 48-28 win over Centennial (Corona, Calif.)
Saturday at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night.
It was De La Salle's fourth straight CIF Open Division Bowl championship, but unlike the previous two,when the Spartans outscored two nationally-ranked teams 73-8, they really had to sweat it out.
Centennial (14-2), with the state's most prolific offense that averages 50 points and 525 yards per game, had fought back from a 28-0 deficit to twice close within a couple touchdowns. But the Spartans (15-0) fought off the Huskies behind 143 yards rushing yards from Vitale, 121 more by junior
(121 yards, one TD) and junior quarterback Chris Williams
(8 of 14, 131 yards passing).
"It was one of those games you have to hold your breathe because you don't know when they'll explode on you," said De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur.
The coaching staff was particularly elated because they were possibly celebrating Ladouceur's last game as head coach of the Spartans. It sure looked like they were.
The 58-year-old has intimated for weeks that this could be his last season after an unmatched 34-year career that includes 399 wins against just 25 defeats and three ties. This was his fifth State Bowl title — they've only been offered for seven — to go along with eight mythical national championships.
With another perfect season, this could De La Salle's ninth. The Spartans are No. 1 in the MaxPreps Freeman rankings
He's told friends and reporters that he's simply tired, which is common for most coaches this time of year. But it's obvious Ladouceur really means it and is seriously considering the move.
The first question posed to him after the game: Was this your your last game as head coach at De La Salle?
"Maybe," he said. "I'm going to decide after Christmas."
The reaction of his coaches — all swarmed and embraced him after Vitale's last touchdown — and the fact the Gatorade bath, normally saved for the head coach, was dumped on assistant Justin Alumbaugh, who has long been groomed as Ladouceur's successor.
Afterward, Ladouceur, in a good, relaxed mood after a satisfying victory, reiterated his was worn out. Athletic Director Leo Lopoz and 32-year assistant and close friend Terry Eidson said they really don't know if Ladouceur is leaving.
Eidson said if Ladouceur steps away "he's not going to retire from coaching. He loves coaching. When the time comes — and I'm not saying it's now — he's still going to do (some coaching) at De La Salle. He loves it. He's fantastic at it (coaching and teaching). It's his one true love."
That seems to indicate Ladouceur will stay on in some capacity — varsity assistant or freshman coach — whenever he steps down. His ego — and certainly record — doesn't require him to be the head coach. It would, in many regards, be fitting that he finished his career at 399, one victory from a milestone to others.
Centennial coach Matt Logan, whom Ladouceur respects greatly, sort of laughed about all the speculation and hoopla.
He was proud of his team's effort and comeback, albeit sloppy. The Huskies (14-2) fumbled seven times and lost three and was penalized 12 times. De La Salle also was flagged 12 times, fumbled five times but only lost one.
The game wasn't clean, but certainly entertaining, like most Centennial games.
"Yeah, we were really excited about this possibly of this being his last game," Logan mused an hour after the game. "Like they might not have enough incentive. Thanks coach. Great."
When asked if it was indeed Ladouceur's last game and his impact, Logan got serious.
"He sets the standard," Logan said. "Not only in the way his teams play and execute but how they conduct themselves. It's been a pleasure to coach against him. He's made me and our staff better coaches."
Ladouceur had almost identical sentiments about Logan and the Huskies after they fought back from a four-touchdown deficit to close to 28-14 and 42-28.
"They are so tough to prepare for and tough to play," Ladouceur said. "They are one of those teams that it takes them just four plays to get in the end zone. I have a lot of respect for that team and program and coach Logan."
De La Salle needed to put up 454 total yards — 323 rushing — to offset a a mammoth effort by Centennial's
, who thew for 308 yards and three scores and added 61 rushing yards. But with De La Salle's big lead, Centennial was forced to be one-dimensional and the Huskies were pretty good at that.
They piled up 417 yards and 28 points, which were season highs against De La Salle. They were well off Centennial's season averages however.
"I felt like we were watching a college quarterback out there," Eidson said of Webber. "We were concerned most of all with all the athletes they have running all over the place.
"Those were two really good football teams out there. No one has been able to slow (Centennial) down. He has a great system and coach Logan does an awesome job. His kids and staff do a great job. They have nothing to be ashamed of."
De La Salle took advantage of some sloppy Centennial play early to jump to a 28-0 lead before the Huskies (14-2) climbed back with two scores, one late in the second quarter and another to start the third.
But after USC-bound linebacker Michael Hutchings
recovered a fumble at the De La Salle 38, Williams hooked up with Austin Lonestar
to make it 35-14 with 6:39 left in the third quarter.
"I though Chris made some really big plays and throws tonight," Ladouceur said. "He was real green to start the year, but with stuck with him and were patient with him and he really showed himself and improved."
Once again, the Huskies wouldn't go away and scored on a pair of fourth-down short touchdown passes from
to Ryan Pascarella
and Greyson Bankhead
to close to 42-28 with 8:46 remaining.
De La Salle fumbled the ball away on its next possession giving the Huskies life at the Spartans 42. But Centennial couldn't convert a first down and De La Salle took over on downs with 5:45 remaining.
Vitale, who sprained his shoulder in the first quarter, put it away five minutes later. He finished as the Spartans' single-season rushing leader with 2,100 to go along with 33 touchdowns.
"I had to finish this game out," Vitale said of his injury. "This was my last game as a senior and I didn't want to let the team down. I just tried to push through." Vitale
rushed for three first-half touchdowns for the Spartans, who entered No. 5 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Football Rankings and Centennial was No. 15. The teams played twice previously, in 2007 a 37-31 De La Salle victory followed the next year with a 21-16 victory for Centennial.
Centennial looked a little unnerved from the start, muffing the kickoff and starting at its own 4. The Huskies managed a couple first downs, but on fourth down punter Rigo Luna dropped a perfect snap and was smothered at the De La Salle 19.
Three plays later, Vitale sprinted around left end for his 30th touchdown of the year, giving De La Salle a 7-0 lead with 8:16 left in the first quarter. After holding Centennial 3-and-out, the Spartans went 61 yards in 11 plays capped by Vitale's 31st TD, a one-yard plunge.
"We made a ton of mistakes early and they made some," Logan said. "But the difference was they capitalized on ours and we didn't."
One play after quarterback
put too much air under what looked to be a sure touchdown to Andrew Buckley
, he rifled a pretty 25-yard completion on the run to Lonestar to set up Vitale's score.
Not only did the touchdown give De La Salle a 14-0 lead, but it kept Centennial's state-best offense off the field for 4:02.
The Spartans didn't take nearly that much time while making it 21-0 as Vitale scored his third touchdown of the game and 32nd of the season on a 46-yard burst over the left side with 8:57 left in the second quarter.
It came after linebacker Das Tautalatasi
forced a fumble and recovered it at the De La Salle 37. Four plays later, Vitale sprinted almost untouched into the end zone.
De La Salle increased the lead to 28-0 after Centennial muffed a punt at the Spartans 27. Williams sprinted around the right side for a 3-yard score six plays later giving his team a four-touchdown lead with 3:32 left in the half.
Centennial showed what it's done all season with a nifty 12-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Austin Renken
. The Spartans were missing Hooper, who injured his leg on the drive before.
Renken's touchdown cut the lead to 28-7 just before halftime. After De La Salle went three-and-out to start the second half, the Huskies got right back in it as Webber
hooked up with Chase Krivashei
on a 73-yard touchdown pass, making it 28-14 with 10:25 left in the third quarter.
De La Salle hadn't given up a big play like that for almost two months.
"I knew at halftime we weren't going to lay down," Logan said. "This is a tremendous group and we've had a tremendous year. We knew if we could score early in the third quarter we'd have a ball game. And it was."
No arguments there from Ladouceur, who is the career leader in winning percentage (.935). But De La Salle was truly in control almost the entire game and the entire season, while outscoring opponents 618-183.
It was De La Salle's 27th perfect season since Ladouceur took over in 1979.
"I like the way this group hung in there," he said. "We made a lot of mistakes early in the season, a lot of turnovers. ... But we showed improvement. We played our best football the last five games. That's what we train for."