It's tough to portray a team with a 116-game winning streak as an underdog, but that was the curious position the football team from De La Salle High of Concord, Calif., found itself in before its 29-15 victory over Long Beach ( Calif.) Poly last Saturday night. The game marked the first meeting of No. 1 and No. 2 in the 19-year history of USA Today's Super 25 rankings, and the Spartans were peeved about going into any game relegated to second. After all, De La Salle had gone undefeated throughout the Clinton presidency, and the last time it had lost—Dec. 4, 1991—Tiger Woods was too young to hold a driver's license, and rap's most popular white guy was Vanilla Ice, not Eminem.
However, the Spartans had only three starters back on a defense that had held opponents to 40 points a year ago, and they were inexperienced at the skill positions. On paper they were no match for the Poly juggernaut. The Jackrabbits had sent more players to the NFL (39) than any other high school in the country, and since the start of the 1997 season they'd gone 57-1-1. This year's squad is widely regarded as the most talented in school history, with six players listed in SuperPrep's top 100.
So how to account for Poly's humbling at the hands of the supposedly overmatched Spartans? "They underestimated us, big time," said De La Salle junior running back Maurice Drew, the star of the game with 165 total yards and four touchdowns. "I read the quotes in the paper, and it was like they had all these star players and we didn't have anybody." In truth, the Spartans did not need this kind of external motivation. "The kids have been preparing for this game since January," says Bob Ladouceur, who, in his 23rd season as the De La Salle coach, has a 253-14-1 record.
As both squads steamrollered toward their date with destiny, the hype reached a fever pitch. One hundred twenty-one media credentials were issued for the game to organizations as diverse as ABC World News Tonight and NFL Films. A live telecast was available nationwide on DirecTV, and attendance at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach swelled to 17,321. Scalpers were charging up to $50 for $10 tickets.
Poly, with an enrollment of 4,600, is located on the mean streets of west LBC, immortalized in the gritty rhymes of native son Snoop Dogg. De La Salle, an all-boys Catholic school with an enrollment of 1,050 and a tuition of $7,800, is situated in an upper-middle-class Bay Area suburb. Thus the game became shorthand for public versus private, city versus suburb, improvisational athleticism versus a rigid system.
Once the game began, though, easy stereotypes fell away. Poly played with discipline and cohesion, committing no turnovers and only three penalties. De La Salle displayed game-breaking speed and enough exuberance to earn a flag for excessive celebrating after Drew caught a screen pass, dashed 25 yards and somersaulted into the end zone on the first possession of the game. The Spartans extended their first-quarter lead to 14-3 on a rainbow that Drew hauled in at a pylon—only one in a series of perfect passes thrown by 6'4" senior quarterback Matt Gutierrez, who's being recruited by Florida, Michigan and Notre Dame, among other colleges. The Jackrabbits nibbled away at the deficit, closing to 21-15 when their UCLA-bound tight end, 6'7" Marcedes Lewis, caught a 12-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left in the first half.
The Poly offensive line averages a meaty 6'3" and 267 pounds—about 35 pounds per man more than the De La Salle defensive front four. The Spartans dress only 49 players, and five start both ways, including 6'4", 288-pound lineman Derek Landri, who's bound for Notre Dame. To combat their mounting fatigue the Spartans went to their bench, and the story of the second half was the defensive effort of De La Salle's scrubs. Twice in the third quarter the Spartans stopped Poly on downs, and they kept the Jackrabbits' breakaway threat, senior tailback Hershel Dennis, out of the end zone even as he rushed for 161 yards. De La Salle's Drew iced the game with a 22-yard touchdown gallop with 6:57 to go.
"It was an honor to share the field with them," said Jackrabbits coach Raul Lara. "They embody discipline, teamwork and rock-solid fundamentals."
All of the above can be traced to Ladouceur, a former probation officer who teaches religion at De La Salle. The Spartans begin and end every practice with a prayer. After last Saturday's victory they no longer need to beseech the pollsters. De La Salle is No. 1 again, just where it belongs.