A Physical, Grind-It-Out Victory At Folsom Puts De La Salle Football Back At No. 2 In NorCal Rankings And On A Trajectory Many Have Seen Before
For the better part of four decades, watching the De La Salle-Concord football team at the beginning of the season and then watching again at the end of the season has provided a very different experience.
That’s because for all the wins, tradition, prestige and mystique that accompanies the Spartans, one fact has always held true; De La Salle always gets better as the season goes along.
This year, it’s a return to Spartan fundamentals that is fueling that evolution.
A 14-7 victory at Northern California rival Folsom didn’t just showcase how far the Spartans have come over the first five games of the season. It also proved once again that the long-held foundation of De La Salle football — toughness, physicality and discipline — remains as good a blueprint as any for high-level success.
“I just loved our grittiness and I loved our toughness. That looked like a game I could’ve played in in the 90s,” said head coach Justin Alumbaugh, whose team sits at 3-2 and prepares to host McClymonds-Oakland this Friday. “And that’s what we need right now. We’ve got a young group. Obviously we have some real stout seniors and some good seniors but we’re starting a lot of underclassmen. We’ve got a young group and we’re really trying to have them embrace the Spartan way.”
With the Spartans seeking their third-straight win after season-opening losses to Orange Lutheran and Serra-San Mateo, it didn’t take long to recognize the game plan against Folsom as familiar.
De La Salle held the ball for nearly six minutes on its opening drive, and although it didn’t result in points, it set the tone for the night to come. What followed looked in many respects like vintage Spartan football. Grinding runs, the occasional pass, physical defense and well-executed special teams allowed De La Salle to control the evening.
Derrick Blanche opened the scoring with a 3-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and Toa Fa’avae added a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the third quarter to provide all the scoring. The Spartans ran the ball 61 times, threw it just six times and ran 23 more offensive plays than the Bulldogs (3-2).
Blanche rushed for 121 yards, Dominic Kelley added 105 and De La Salle rushed for 309 yards as a team.
The statistics certainly paint a picture, but what adjustments have made the biggest difference in recent weeks?
“We got back to the basics for sure,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Fordon. “Offensively, we’re going to do what De La Salle does. Punch you in the mouth, keep moving the chains, and hopefully when that happens, they stack the box and we take a shot once it opens. With our runners and our offensive line blocking much better than earlier this year, it’s fun seeing our guys grind it out.”
De La Salle’s brand of ball control offense works especially well when the defense gets the ball back in an expedient fashion.
That’s easier said than done against an offense like Folsom’s.
But in that regard, De La Salle’s growth showed up again. Senior linebacker Drew Cunningham played the role of defensive ringleader, showing up all over the field throughout the game and finishing with five solo tackles and another six assists.
“We’re a whole other team from those first two games. Right after (them), we understood what we needed to do,” Cunningham said. “We flew around. We made the changes that needed to be made and it ended up working out. Everyone was able to buy in and we’re just going to keep building from here. We have not played a perfect game yet. We still have so much more to build on too, so that’s still our goal.”
If anyone knows what a De La Salle leader looks like, it’s Alumbaugh. And, to hear him tell it, Cunningham is starting to embrace one of the most important roles a Spartan can have.
“He’s playing like a Spartan is what he is. He’s going both ways and he’s really taken the (leadership) role,” Alumbaugh said. “We had some great team leaders last year. It was unfortunate because (Derek) Thompson and (Cooper) Powers and (Cooper) Flanagan, those guys were hurt a lot with some bad breaks and things like that, but those guys were incredible leaders. Drew has taken on that role.
“We were a little void of leadership early on, to be honest, and he’s become much more vocal and much more demanding. You can tell the demeanor of our team has changed and he’s one of the main guys leading that. We’re just tougher. We’re a tougher team, and he’s doing a good job of leading the group.”
Alumbaugh also referenced a return to some old-school techniques when it comes to bringing out the team’s physicality. The Spartans have increased the hitting at practice and even upped their early morning work to sharpen their collective edge.
The proof has come on the scoreboard. Holding Folsom’s dynamic offense to just seven points is notable enough, but one week earlier, De La Salle also held another high-octane attack in check with a 24-10 victory over St. Mary’s-Stockton. The Rams have scored 38 points or more in each of their four other games.
“We’ve played five great opponents to start our season and we’re getting better,” Alumbaugh said. “We’re very clearly better than we were at the beginning of the year, just because these guys are buying into it. I’m proud of them. It’s gratifying as a coach when they take to the coaching and they buy in.”
The wins over St. Mary’s and Folsom show that a young group is indeed learning the Spartan Way. If that growth continues, the De La Salle that shows up in the postseason will again be a whole different team than the one that started the season.