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2 Losses Test a School's Resolve

A former star football player at the Bay Area campus is shot to death and the team's 151-game win streak comes to an end.

September 11, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, Calif. — Over at Winchell's Donut House, four senior citizens sat in a corner booth shaking their heads. The amazing football victory streak at nearby De La Salle High School had finally ended, and the men -- all ardent fans -- were in stunned disbelief.

"Until my legs gave out and I couldn't climb the stairs, I went to every game," said Jake Koljian, 69. "I never saw them lose."

Over 12 seasons against 151 consecutive opponents, the De La Salle Spartans did not lose a single game. The previous record was held by a high school team in Hudson, Mich., that won 72 games ending in 1975.

De La Salle, a private Christian Brothers Catholic school in this Bay Area suburb east of Oakland, was annually ranked No. 1 nationally in several prep polls.

During its long victory skein, De La Salle's opponents were not all patsies. The streak included repeat victories over Southern California powerhouses Long Beach Poly and Santa Ana's Mater Dei, as well as wins over top teams from Hawaii and Louisiana.

The record run finally came to an end last Saturday in Seattle, when the Spartans lost, 39-20, to a state championship team from Bellevue, Wash.

"The streak" was finally over. De La Salle had been beaten for the first time since 1991. Most of the current players were not even 5 years old the last time the team lost.

The defeat was a surprise blow to the East Bay bedroom communities that supply most of the De La Salle players. After more than a decade of winning, the school had almost become a timepiece here, as predictable as the ocean tides and traffic jams along Interstate 680.

Rocco Biale, 39, a Walnut Creek restaurant owner who follows the team, was on the sidelines when defeat finally came. "Suddenly," he quipped, "we were streakless in Seattle."

Biale, who hopes someday to send his two young sons to De La Salle, said he felt "almost a sense of relief when the loss finally came."

For the faithful, the biggest test of the young team was expected to come Oct. 9 at home against Orange County's nationally ranked Mission Viejo High School.

Going into this season, De La Salle coaches knew they would be fielding one of their weaker teams, with only a handful of retuning starters.

"We knew that at any moment a loss was bound to happen," said Brother Christopher Brady, the school's principal. "The question was only when."

Brady, an uncle of New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, made only a few brief comments about the loss over the public address system when classes resumed Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday.

Compared to football dynasties in other places, De La Salle's success is definitely a low-key affair. There are no banners or big signs proclaiming the team's glories. The football team shares equal billing with baseball, swimming, water polo and other team sports. Although home games regularly draw more than 5,000 supporters, Spartan Stadium is a modest, artificial turf field flanked by rickety bleachers.

Much of this understated approach stems from the personality of mop-haired head Coach Bob Ladouceur, who also teaches religious studies at the school. Although his team holds the all-time prep record, Ladouceur has instructed his players never to talk about it.

"There is no braggadocio about the place," said John Bengamini, 75, one of the doughnut shop regulars.

None of this, however, made the loss any easier for the players. In the morose Seahawk Stadium locker room after the game, assistant coach Joe Aliotti, who also serves as dean of students at the school, tried to reassure the players.

"This is just a high school football game," he said. What happened on the field, Aliotti told them, was really a small matter compared with the horrific events at a school attacked by terrorists in Russia or the hurricane zone of Florida.

But the players, some of whom were following older brothers into the undefeated De La Salle ranks, weren't entirely convinced. In the intense world of high school athletics, this was something more.

One player compared it to losing the family dog. You take the dog for granted for years, he said, but miss it terribly when you come home and suddenly it's not there.

Students on the campus said the first few days after the loss were a little edgy.

"I have a football player in one of my classes," said Toby Endo, a 17-year-old senior from Clayton, Calif. "We were all looking at him to check out his mood. Finally he said, 'I've been getting that look all day. It's like a look of death.' "

On Friday, the day before another big game with a powerful Fresno team, Clovis West, the players and the 1,000-member all-male student body met for a morning communion Mass in the school gym to pray and memorialize a former star player who recently was killed in a drive-by shooting in his native Richmond, Calif.

Eighteen-year-old running back and linebacker Terrance Kelly was killed Aug. 12, two days before he was scheduled to travel to the University of Oregon on a football scholarship.

During the emotional 1 1/2-hour Mass, there was no mention of the broken win streak. In his eulogy, Coach Ladouceur spoke instead of character, fate and the "eternal question of existence."

Father Mark Wiesner, an Oakland priest and a 1981 graduate of De La Salle, also never spoke of the streak. But it seemed to be in the back of his mind when he delivered the sermon.

"It happens to everyone at some point in their life," Wiesner said, "that what we do begins to fall apart, that your career doesn't go the way you wanted."

All week long, coaches had been driving the players during practice in the searing, late-summer heat. Again, the message was about "resolve" and "character."

In the school courtyard after Friday's Mass, quarterback Anthony Gutierrez, 17, of Concord said the "entire team is determined to bounce back. We are not really worried about the score or even losing. A 151-1 record is not bad."

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