The streak will end some day, perhaps even in our lifetime.
Maybe even as soon as Friday.
De La Salle is coming to town, meaning it’s time to buckle the chin straps and apply extra eye black, players included. The nationally renown Spartans of Concord bring their football juggernaut to Folsom High School in a meeting of the top two teams in Northern California.
It’s a nonleague game, and it’s still September, but the ramifications are significant. This is a big deal because De La Stomp is a major big deal.
The Spartans have devoured all comers on the NorCal menu for decades – and then some. De La Salle once peeled off 12 consecutive perfect seasons in amassing an unfathomable 151-game winning streak, leaving Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis to once declare that the program basked in “the greatest football dynasty in U.S. history.”
It’s been 28 years since the Spartans last lost to a Northern California opponent north of Fresno, which is more of a striking indicator of how remarkable De La Salle has been than how inept or ineffective the rest of the field has been. There is good football to be found in Northern California, though DLS has the stamp on greatness.
Folsom coach Paul Doherty knows. He grew up in San Francisco, playing multiple sports with a special affinity for football. He became intrigued by the Spartans in Contra Costa County, the team that never loses.
The De La Salle NorCal unbeaten streak is a gaudy 301 games. There are two ties in that stretch, but any way you shake it, 299-0-2 is one whopper of a feat.
That last NorCal loss?
“December 7, 1991, against Pittsburg in the North Coast Section finals,” Doherty said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Amazing. We have a chance to take the next step as a program, to accomplish what no one else hasn’t in Northern California – beat them. That’s the ongoing challenge for all of us. There’s still a long way to catching up to them because they’ve beaten up the best teams in this section, and a lot of it hasn’t even been close.
“They’re the blueprint of success for high school football. They tackle, they execute, they’re well coach, and they’re intense.”
De La Salle’s blueprint
De La Salle has done it with humility and simplicity, and yes, a smattering of five-star recruits. The Spartans are fundamentally sound, preferring to run than pass. They do not miss tackles and are superbly coached and conditioned.
More heady numbers: De La Salle is 30-0 against the Sac-Joaquin Section since 1980, when the Spartans ascent to power began.
This decade, DLS has toppled this section’s elite, going 4-0 against St. Mary’s of Stockton, 3-0 against Folsom, 3-0 against Del Oro, 2-0 against Central Catholic of Modesto and 1-0 against Jesuit and Granite Bay.
“This section, and all of these good teams, we obviously have not been good enough,” Doherty said.
Can Folsom win? Of course.
The Bulldogs are similarly superbly coached and conditioned. The roster includes 11 players with Division I scholarship offers, including national recruit skill players Elijhah Badger and Daniyel Ngata
A Folsom victory would register as the greatest prep feat in this section, trumping any water polo or swimming team that finished No. 1 nationally, or a rugby team that won a national championship. Football is king, and De La Salle towers in the biggest castle.
De La Salle rolled Folsom in the since-dropped CIF NorCal Open Division finals in 2012 and 2013, halting Folsom’s 14-0 seasons. A year ago, De La Salle beat Folsom 14-0 in an opener in Concord, and Folsom never looked back, repeating as CIF State Division I-AA champions while the Spartans returned to the prestigious, big-boy CIF Open finals for a record 10th consecutive season.
De La Salle is 386-5-2 against NorCal teams since 1984, with those losses coming to teams who used trick plays or changed the offense completely at the half to offer any ounce of change.
And this: I have not heard a peep from anyone – coaches, players, fans – about De La Salle ever running up the score, of taunting or showboating. It just doesn’t happen, and on the rare occasion it does, that player pays.
“We take a lot of pride in how we behave and conduct ourselves because that means more than wins or losses,” said De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh, an alum of the school. “Some may be irked by that stance, but I don’t care. This is education-based athletics.
“Don’t get me wrong. We want to win games, but we also do this to build a community and a real team. We want to play hard, to play tough, to be physical, but talking is something we don’t accept, or any sort of stupidity. We’ve benched kids before a state-championship game before on this. And we know we have to be at our best against Folsom. That’s a great team.”
Clash of the classy programs
Doherty likes his team’s chances, always, and he has urged his players to continue to compete with humility – toss the ball back to the referee and act as if you belong on this stage. He has challenged his team even more this week, given the stakes and stage.
“How will we do if we’re trailing, if there’s adversity, and there will be in football,” Doherty said. “Our maturity is good when things are good. When thing are not going good? That worries me. I expect our response to be positive, that don’t implode and pout and blame others because that’s the trend in society today.”
Alumbaugh and his staff do not dwell on streaks, just on the next practice and next game. Still, they do not take their success at De La Salle for granted, even if there is no room chock full of banners and trophies on campus.
“People ask us, ‘Where are some of the trophies?’” Alumbaugh said. “I think coaches have some in their garage. We’re not against having a trophy room, and championships are great, but if we’re only playing because we want a trophy, we’re missing everything that’s important about high school athletics.”
The humble frame of mind started under Bob Ladouceur, who became head coach at the school in 1979 at age 24, a young man looking for a teaching job and then handed the football program that had not had a single winning season since opening in 1963.
The football facilities were sparse and meager. No goalposts, no weights, and, really, no real chance.
His first meeting with prospective players on campus included some lost souls, including the guys with bandannas and the one with a large marijuana leaf splashed across his T-shirt.
“We had nothing,” Ladouceur told me a few years ago. “A brother brought in an Olympic weight set, and it was stolen two weeks later. We asked kids to bring in their own weights, those old plastic ones. I had a coaching friend, a great handyman, who welded together three bench presses. That’s how we started.”
Ladouceur stepped down to be an assistant to Alumbaugh following the 2012 season. He went 399-25-3 with nine one-point losses and more North Coast Section titles – 28 – than losses.
The respect runs deep between De La Salle and Folsom. .
Said senior running back and safety Shamir Garrett, “The way (Folsom) coaches their guys, they’re just like another us, another powerhouse program. Their athletes play with confidence.”
Folsom quarterback Jake Reithmeier spoke for his team when he said of De La Salle, “I have nothing but respect for them and what they’ve done as a program, and they’re going to be a huge test for our team. They’re really good, and I think we’re really good, too. Our Folsom program is building to be what De La Salle has done in the past, and I think coach Doherty is the man to do it. We’re all just super excited to get out there and play Friday night.”