De La Salle Coach Justin Alumbaugh Masterfully Guided His Program Through Some Of Its Heaviest Adversity In Decades — Still Reaching Another CIF Bowl
So much of a coach’s best work happens away from the field. It happens in quiet moments with individual players and vulnerable moments amongst the full roster.
Which, of course, means the media and general public don’t always know the lengths to which some coaches go to keep a team centered, pulling in the same direction and performing well.
In the case of the 2023 De La Salle-Concord football team, we did know.
In his 11th year and 10th full season of leading the Spartans, Justin Alumbaugh endured a challenge he’d never faced before when beloved defensive assistant coach Steve Jacoby passed away suddenly in the middle of the season. Alumbaugh’s ability to guide his team through the grieving process (while grieving himself), in addition to leading a younger De La Salle team out of an 0-2 start to an 11-3 finish with multiple titles, and coordinating one of NorCal’s most dominant defenses, were all factors in SportStars naming him its 2023 NorCal Coach Of The Year.
Spartans players learned of the loss of their defensive line coach on the morning of Friday, October 20. It was the day they were set to play El Cerrito in a game that was literally scheduled two days before when the program’s original opponent canceled. It was only a week after the team had been pushed to the brink of a historic loss against East Bay Athletic League rival San Ramon Valley-Danville, escaping in overtime.
Alumbaugh let his team choose if it wanted to play against El Cerrito. The players resoundingly embraced an opportunity to honor their late coach. They won that night to begin a six-game stretch in which they outscored opponents 216-46.
That blitz included holding San Ramon Valley to just seven points in a rematch that determined the North Coast Section Open Division title. Two weeks later, the Spartans shutout previously undefeated Clovis North-Fresno 41-0 in a CIF 1-AA Northern Regional matchup. The season ended with a 27-14 state bowl loss to Mission Viejo.
“This group has faced more adversity than any team outside of the ‘04 team with (the death of) Terrance Kelly,” Alumbaugh said following the NorCal win. “These guys have shown a lot of resilience, a lot of pride, a lot of guts. I’m very proud of them. It’s hard to reflect back on it because it’s still going, but I do know that I’m very proud of where we started to where we are and the toughness and the connectedness that this group has shown. It’s gratifying to coach these guys.”
Somewhat lost in his role as the face of the program during a tumultuous season, was the fact that Alumbaugh had to reshape his staff in July after former defensive coordinator Nate Kenion left to seek other opportunities. Alumbaugh coaxed longtime assistant Terry Eidson out of retirement to lead special teams, handed the offense over to Kevin Fordon and gave himself lead defensive duties.
His defense held CIF 1-A State Bowl-champion Folsom to its lowest output of the season in a 14-7 win. The Spartans also kept a St. Mary’s-Stockton team that averaged 40 points per game to just 10. The unit had four shutouts, including the NorCal title game. The defense was the backbone of the team, supporting a Spartans offense that had to grind for much of the season and finished without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2005.
So much of the team’s resilience and growth was exemplified in the win over Clovis North.
“We were 0-2 and we had St. Mary’s-Stockton and Folsom on the way and were looking at possibly an 0-4 start,” Eidson said. “I think the coaches, we kind of had to change our direction a little bit. It was an ongoing process and kind of a morphing of our team. And it all came together (in the Norcal final). I was just standing on the sideline and thinking, ‘This is incredible.’”