It’s still been since 1991 that a Bay Area team or one in the state north of Fresno has been able to beat De La Salle of Concord. The Spartans won again Friday, but Antioch falling by just 28-21 gives hope for the Panthers in a possible playoff rematch and others.
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There weren’t that many sullen faces among the top players at Antioch after the Panthers lost to De La Salle of Concord on Friday in a matchup that was shown on ESPNU to a national TV audience.
As a team from the CIF North Coast Section and greater Bay Area, Antioch players know that the usual score for anyone playing the Spartans is often much more lopsided than 28-21.
“I think we’ll be more confident after this game,” said Antioch senior Isaiah Dunn, who lifted his team back into contention with a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown early in the fourth quarter. “We now know what we’re capable of doing.”
The Panthers also scored later in the fourth period on a 4-yard run by consensus No. 1 national recruit Najee Harris that cut the deficit to 28-21 with six minutes left in the game. They couldn’t stop De La Salle’s Kairee Robinson when they had to, however, and the Spartans virtually ran out the clock.
Antioch did have two final desperation plays with 12 seconds remaining, but didn’t get close to a score.
It marked the third straight close game for De La Salle, which started No. 1 in the state rankings (mainly for having won six of the last seven CIF Open Division state titles) and then dropped to No. 4 after a 28-27 win over Servite of Anaheim and then to No. 6 after a 23-21 loss to East of Salt Lake City, Utah.
This time, the close game was another Contra Costa County school that began the season at No. 14 in the state and then fell out after a 49-32 loss to Milpitas (which is still unbeaten).
“Antioch showed a lot of guts because we had chances to put them away and we didn’t,” said De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh. “We’ve got to play way more disciplined and much smarter.”
Harris, who finished with 132 yards on 32 carries, had some of his best runs on Antioch’s opening series, which put the ball on De La Salle’s 3-yard line before two straight poor snaps knocked the Panthers back to the 26. There was one stretch of eight straight carries later on in which Najee’s longest run was four yards.
After fumbling on its first two possessions and then getting stopped on downs twice, it wasn’t until there were 16.3 seconds left before halftime until the Spartans scored. It took a 1-yard plunge by Robinson to get it, but it was a risky play because De La Salle had no time outs left and if Robinson had been stopped there likely wouldn’t have been time to get off another play or bring the kicker in for a field goal attempt.
De La Salle then took a two-score lead on its first series of the second half. Runs by Robinson and senior Tre White set it up, with the touchdown coming on a 3-yard run by Robinson.
Antioch scored its first touchdown on a fourth down play as well. That one came from its own 30 on fourth-and-11 when sophomore Willem Karnthong lofted a pass to the end zone that was grabbed between two defenders by Dunn.
The Spartans quickly answered with a 70-yard scoring drive that began on a 33-yard run by Robinson. Senior quarterback Abel Ordaz wrapped it up on a 1-yard run.
Dunn’s long kickoff return TD came next with 11:18 left in the game, but less than two minutes later Robinson, who finished with 250 yards on 27 carries, answered with a 57-yard touchdown jaunt to set the stage for Harris’ touchdown and the clock-killing drive by the Spartans.
“It’s not just the youth we have and that’s not an excuse,” said Alumbaugh, who has several sophomores starting in key spots. “A lot of those guys making mistakes have played a lot of football. We’ve just got to play better.”
Harris, who was the focus of the DLS defense and the ESPNU national audience, seemed to enjoy the challenge.
“The atmosphere was cool and I feel blessed,” Harris said. “I’m glad so many people wanted to see me play and to see if they could stop me.”
While De La Salle does seem much more vulnerable to not being the No. 1 team in Northern California and winning another CIF North Coast Section title (the Spartans have won the title 31 years in a row), it’s also harder to say after Friday which team may have the best odds of doing so.
The next highest team from Northern California in last week’s state rankings, St. Mary’s of Stockton, lost 55-16 to state No. 2 St. John Bosco. The next in line after that, Del Oro of Loomis, has only a two-point win over Bellarmine of San Jose.
The next highest ranked NCS teams, Pittsburg and Monte Vista of Danville, also have had close games, including this week for Pitt against Vacaville and Monte Vista against California of San Ramon.
All of the coaches at De La Salle know that some of the other NCS teams will be closer to them than in many years and they know how much better the Spartans will have to play to approach the level of last year’s team or the level that the top Southern California teams already have gotten to.
Antioch’s players also would love to get another crack at the Spartans in the first NCS Open Division. Their problem is that their league, the Bay Valley Athletic League, has been insane with several teams currently unbeaten.
“I’d say the odds are high we’ll play them again,” Harris said. “But first we’ve got to get ready for Freedom (Oakley), then Heritage (Brentwood) and eventually Pitt.”