De La Salle returned from Carson with a fourth state title and a record-setting running back.
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Tiapepe Vitale wasn’t right.
He was running hard, but for those watching the CIF Open Division Bowl championship game closely enough, it was clear something was bothering the 5-foot-10, 200-pound tailback.
Vitale entered the game against Centennial-Corona needing just 94 yards to set the storied program’s single-season rushing record of 2,050 yards set by Terron Ward in 2009. But with a few minutes remaining in the first half, after scoring three touchdowns, he was headed toward the locker room with trainers.
He’d gained 93 yards.
“I thought it was something more serious,” said Vitale, who missed a month of his sophomore season with a nerve injury in the same right shoulder. “Once they told me it would only be sore the rest of the game, I was relieved I could continue playing.”
It was diagnosed as a shoulder sprain, and Vitale promptly went out and gained 52 more yards in the second half. And they were not easy yards. Several of his second half carries went straight into the Centennial defense — more than once leading with his right shoulder. A few of those runs came on a critical 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that chewed up more than five and a half minutes of game clock right after the Huskies had cut the De La Salle lead to 35-21 late in the third quarter.
Vitale reached the end zone one more time on the night, punctuating the Spartans victory with a 2-yard dive with 47 seconds left in the game.
“Pepe has definitely been working hard from Day One,” said Terrell Ward, a De La Salle assistant coach and Terron’s father. “He had to learn the Spartan Way after he came in as a sophomore a few years ago. It took time for him to understand that strength work, and conditioning, and being a true Spartan, it takes all of it — mentally, physically, spiritually. And he carried it this year. Today he was banged up, he could’ve probably just went and sat down, but he finished the game for us and he was big.”
Centennial was a team built on a dynamic spread offense led by junior quarterback Robert Webber and an extremely talented receiving corps. The Huskies entered the game averaging more than 50 points a game.
And while the De La Salle defense hadn’t surrendered more than 24 points in a game all season, the Spartans knew their best defense would simply be keeping the Centennial offense off the field.
“We just knew we had to wear them out,” Vitale said. “That’s what we needed. Grind it out and keep that offense off the field.”
It wasn’t just Vitale. The Spartans offensive line paved the way for a 331-yard night on the ground. Junior tailback Das Tautalatasi carried 17 times for 121 yards and quarterback Chris Williams had 11 carries for 62 yards.
It was still Vitale’s effort that personified the De La Salle offensive attack.
“He was running very hurt,” De La Salle offensive line coach Justin Alumbaugh said. “His injury is not one that’s easy to run with as a runner. He gutted it out. Our line loves blocking for him. He’s a tough kid, and he works every bit as hard as those linemen and he hits as every bit as hard too.”
A few days removed from his performance, acknowledging that winning was the most important stat, Vitale was asked about becoming the new school rushing leader.
“It just felt great,” he said. “Accomplishing a goal like that, especially with all the runners that have come before me. … It was great honor to be able to work that hard and put my name up there as well.”
While Vitale got one more game than Terron Ward, who now plays at Oregon State, the way he went about earning the record is something that would’ve made the former Spartans running back proud.
“That’s just it,” Terrell Ward said. “That’s what it’s all for. The next guy step up for your brothers before you. Keep it moving. I’m proud of that kid, man. He’s golden.”
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