De La Salle returned to its 5th straight CIF Open Bowl behind a vintage rushing attack.
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Fourteen games into his head coaching career, and perhaps the best compliment that De La Salle High football coach Justin Alumbaugh could receive is this:
Taking over the lead coaching role from his mentor, legendary coach Bob Ladouceur, the Spartans didn’t skip a beat on the way to a 14-0 record and another berth to the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division State Bowl game on Dec. 21. But more than that, De La Salle has looked every bit the part of its predecessors, especially — and not surprisingly — its early predecessors, which Alumbaugh himself was a part of in the mid-90s.
Physical. Grinding. And an offense that relentlessly — and seemingly with little effort because of its efficiency—thrives in the rushing game.
“Coach Alumbaugh told us at the beginning of the year that there was going to be a lot more ‘old school De La Salle Spartans football,’” standout two-way lineman Sumner Houston said. “I think we’re getting there.”
The one constant that ran throughout the dominant history of the Ladouceur Era has been the program’s line play. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Spartans win at the point of attack, with quickness, precision and grit. All of which has been on display for much of the season from the 2013 line, seemingly reaching a crescendo in December.
In its North Coast Section Div. I championship victory over California-San Ramon on Dec. 7, De La Salle needed just eight passing yards from quarterback Chris Williams thanks to a ground game that posted 534 yards and seven touchdowns. One week later — in a 45-17 CIF Regional Bowl win over Folsom — Williams delivered 84 yards passing while the rushing attack produced 381 yards. Both wins were vintage De La Salle efforts that were sure to elicit a sly grin from the team’s newest assistant coach, Ladouceur.
“We (coaches) took a look at some of our rushing totals and compared them with the last couple years,” Alumbaugh said. “Overall, we’re not a real stat driven group, but we can’t remember putting up this many rushing yards. There’s no new coaches on this staff, and all of us put our heads together and couldn’t remember a time when we’ve rushed like this.”
The Spartans eclipsed the 5,000-yard rushing plateau in the win over Folsom, increasing their average to 365.8 yards over their first 14 games. Senior John Velasco has 1,997 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground, and sophomore Antoine Custer has added 1,141 yards and 14 rushing scores. Williams has 15 rushing touchdowns to go with the eight that he’s thrown.
And it all starts with the line comprised by juniors Blake Ogburn (right tackle), Drew Sullivan (right guard), and seniors Brian Joyce (center), Larry Allen Jr. (left guard) and Houston at left tackle. Add in junior super-sub lineman Matt Mederios and tight ends Devin Asiasi and Joe Gervolino and you get the majority of Spartans blocking force.
It’s a unit that has only got better since things went awry in the second game of the year, a high-wire-act 21-14 win at Serra-San Mateo.
“We were mainly playing scared,” Houston said. “They were shifting around a lot and we were coming off the ball slow and not as intense as we’re supposed to be. That was a big factor in how that game turned out.”
Houston is the emotional center of the team, and the anchor for both lines. He was named the East Bay Athletic League’s Most Valuable Player and would almost assuredly get the “old school Spartan” stamp of approval from Alumbaugh.
“He plays with a lot of toughness and a lot of physicality,” the coach said. “Last year he played the whole season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, which is pretty remarkable for a two-way lineman. He came back this year stronger than ever. There’s just a lot of grittiness to him. He’s just a tough kid, and he wants to be good and he wants to do things well.”
He’s also very much the opposite of his older brother, Bart, who was primarily a quiet leader as the quarterback for three state championship teams from 2009-2011. His play and passion can overflow and sometimes remind his coaches of a former excitable Spartans lineman, current Oregon State starter Dylan Wynn. So much so that Alumbaugh admits to having to ask Houston to work on being a little less vocal at times.
That being said, ask Houston about his offensive line mates and he gushes.
On Ogburn, who replaced Boss Tagaloa at right tackle a few weeks into the season so that Tagaloa could focus more on his defensive line duties: “He’s smaller (than Boss), but quicker. … We go head-to-head in one-on-one drills and earlier in the year I’d just beat the crud out of him. Now it’s much more of a fight.”
On Sullivan: “He’s improved a lot from last year. He’s been very reliable all year long.”
On Joyce: “He’s a grinder. He’s the smallest guy on the offensive line, but he’s probably one of the best grinders on the team. He’s never afraid and always keeps his feet driving.
On Allen: “He’s probably one of the quietest, meanest, angriest persons I know. He doesn’t talk much but he does his job and he rarely has any technical flaws.”
The line as a whole has also benefitted from having Larry Allen Sr., a recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, on staff. And aside from the obvious help he provides the offense, Houston says he’s equally improved the defensive line.
“He’s helped make our offensive line so much better, and in turn that has forced our defensive line to pick up it’s play in practice, too,” Houston said.
De La Salle will line up opposite of St. John Bosco-Bellflower — which has spent the majority of the season ranked No. 2 in the state behind the Spartans — for an Open Division Championship which will likely determine the CalHiSports.com State Team of the Year. De La Salle has held that honor each of the last four season after winning each of the last four CIF Open titles.
It will be Houston’s third trip to play at the StubHub Center in Carson.
“My first year was my brother’s team,” he said. “Last year was (All-State linebacker Michael Hutching’s) team along with all those other seniors. Now it’s my team. It’s my senior year, and I’ve got to bring it home.”
A typical old-school Spartan response.
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