Historical angles are all over the map as De La Salle of Concord gets set to open its 2018 season at home on Friday in a matchup against Folsom that brings together the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in Northern California and No. 3 vs. No. 4 in the state.
Northern California prep football — and by that we mean the CIF sections in the state north of the CIF Central Section — has been overwhelmingly dominated by the enveloping presence of the program at De La Salle of Concord for 27 years.
People may say the Spartans have not played a tough schedule in many of those years, but this is still a region of the state that includes one of the top 10 media markets (San Francisco Bay Area) in the nation and one of the top 20 (Sacramento-Stockton). It’s an area that has more than 400 high schools. So for one football program to be the best from all of that region for 27 consecutive seasons is something that hasn’t happened in U.S. prep football history. Not even close.
Every year, the thought has to cross every prep writer’s head, that one of these years and one of these days, De La Salle is going to lose one game to one of these teams. It just doesn’t seem to happen, which is why the Spartans have been in every CIF Open Division state final except the first one in 2008 and it’s still an argument to this day that they should have been in that one too instead of Grant of Sacramento.
Most of our NorCal prep colleagues are now ingrained not to blindly state that De La Salle has not lost to another NorCal school since it fell to Pittsburg 35-27 in the CIF North Coast Section championship in 1991. That’s because NorCal geographically certainly includes Fresno and in 2004 and 2005 the Spartans lost games to Clovis West of Fresno. Still, their unbeaten streak of not having lost to another opponent north of Fresno is at 290 games at the start of this season. For most of the years, of course, DLS didn’t lose to any opponent from 1991 to 2004 when it obliterated the national record with 151 straight triumphs.
In addition to those losses to Clovis West, De La Salle also had two ties to local opponents in 2004 — the first to Palma of Salinas and the second to Clayton Valley of Concord. And it’s not like the Spartans have not come very, very close to losing to another local foe. In 2009, Serra of San Mateo, whose head coach, Patrick Walsh, was the leader of the team at De La Salle who started the NorCal domination in 1992, lost 29-28 essentially when a botched snap on a last-minute PAT attempt by the Spartans was run in for a two-point conversion. In 2011, Bellarmine of San Jose had a chance to win in overtime but had a two-point play stopped and lost 26-23 in two overtimes. Then just two years ago, San Ramon Valley of Danville had DLS on the ropes, scored late and went for two to get the win but couldn’t convert and lost 28-27.
Folsom had two previous attempts to beat the Spartans and didn’t come close either time. In 2012, with then sophomore Jake Browning leading the way, the Bulldogs, who were 14-0, faced De La Salle in the first-ever CIF NorCal Open Division championship. It was a wake up call as DLS prevailed 49-15 and then went on to beat Corona Centennial 49-28 in what became the final game in the legendary career of DLS head coach Bob Ladouceur. Then in 2013, with first-year head coach Justin Alumbaugh leading the program, Folsom again looked like its high-octane offense might give the Spartans a lot of trouble, but this time Browning and company in his junior year were stopped again 45-17.
In both of those games, Folsom got itself in trouble by not punting on fourth downs deep inside its own half of the field. Against even good high school defenses, going for it frequently on fourth down has been a staple of the Bulldogs’ attack. Against DLS, however, that is just not going to work nearly as often and those stops only helped the Spartans score more frequently themselves and forced the Bulldogs to take more risks on offense later on playing in catch up mode. We’d be surprised if Folsom still does the same in this week’s game.
The two teams didn’t play in 2014 because the CIF stopped having the Open Division regional games. The reasons for doing that might make sense for many, but it’s just too bad the CIF couldn’t have waited one more year. De La Salle of 2014 and Folsom of 2014 were the top two teams in the state and two of the best teams in NorCal history. Folsom of 2014 set the national scoring record and won the CIF D1 state title 68-7 over Oceanside. Browning (now at Washington) threw for more than 5,700 yards and 91 TDs and blocking for him was a player who’s projected to be a top five pick in the next NFL draft, offensive tackle Jonah Williams. But De La Salle had a collection of one of its best groups of linemen ever and won the CIF Open Division state title. Was Folsom better? Perhaps, but we’ll never know for sure and for rankings purposes the Spartans just had to be higher for winning those games the way they did in 2013 and 2012 and for winning the Open Division.
This brings us to Friday night. Folsom ended the 2017 season at 16-0 with the CIF D1-AA state title and had another offensive juggernaut — led by junior QB Kaiden Bennett, junior WR Joe Ngata, sophomore RB Daniyel Ngata and junior WR Elihjah Badger. Notice the classes of all of those players. All were going to be back and they are back. De La Salle ended 2017 after getting dominated 56-21 by national No. 1 Mater Dei (Santa Ana) in the CIF Open Division final.
Both schools should be commended for agreeing to play in 2018, even though it had to be in the very first game and in a season that was moved up one week in the state for everyone. De La Salle could have not played Folsom, won all of its games against the rest of its usual CIF North Coast Section competition and then headed off to take another crack most likely at either Mater Dei or St. John Bosco. Folsom could have backed away from playing De La Salle, likely ensuring that the best this year’s team could do was win another CIF D1-AA state title. Instead, they as a group have decided to try for a bigger prize.
In interviews leading up to this week’s game, De La Salle players, led by All-American linebacker Henry To’oto’o, have talked openly that they consider this matchup to be the one that will decide which team goes to the Open Division state final from the north. They’re right. Head-to-head results are always the key to the Open Division berth and this game between a team with 27 straight NCS titles and one with five of the last six CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D1 titles is likely going to decide it. Even if DLS were to lose in its home game against national power Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, the head-to-head will take precedence.
Folsom head coach Kris Richardson has been the opposite. His stance is that his team hasn’t played one minute in a single game yet so all this talk of the Open Division is way too early. In one sense, he’s right, too. It’s always a possibility that another team (Pittsburg in the NCS perhaps) could be better and there’s a long way to go.
As for what to look for in the game itself, Folsom’s offense is going to be almost impossible for any opponent to stop (even including Mater Dei or St. John Bosco if the Bulldogs get that far). While Bennett isn’t Jake Browning, Browning didn’t have big-time receivers that Bennett has and didn’t hand off to a running back like Daniyel Ngata. If Folsom of 2018 hopes to reach the level of Folsom 2014, however, the offensive line is going to have to be improved (there isn’t anyone like Jonah Williams in the group) and the defense that gave up 42 points to Helix of La Mesa in that state final is going to have to be much, much better.
If there’s an X factor in the game to watch, one possibility is De La Salle TE/DE Isaiah Foksey. He’s the type of player who can be very dynamic as a pass rusher, batting away passes, and then turning around and catching them on offense. In that very first DLS-Folsom game, current Atlanta Falcons’ tight end Austin Hooper (who caught a TD pass in the Super Bowl) was the one who was a thorn in Folsom’s side on many pass plays. The Spartans also know what’s at stake and may have been grooming some other player not many of us know about yet to emerge as a difference maker. We’ve all seen them do it before. We know that sophomore QB Dorian Hale can throw the ball and that this year’s team does intend to add a much more effective passing game. That other player could be someone other than him.
With Hale making his first start and with De La Salle also in recent years just not getting up to speed until later in the season, Folsom and its more experienced offensive players actually probably should be favored to win and end the “NorCal” or “north of Fresno” streak. It is going to end someday, right?