"It might be the most anticipated game in state history," said Cal-Hi Sports founder Nelson Tennis. "How big it is after that depends on what happens, whether it's a close game and how the teams do the rest of the season."
It is clearly the first time two teams enter a game ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, although there have been matchups during the course of a season that turned out to determine a mythical national champion, such as in 1998 when De La Salle defeated eventual CIF Southern Section Div. I champ Mater Dei 28-21. Had Mater Dei won that game, research shows the Monarchs would have been No. 1 in just about every national ranking, too.
De La Salle opened the 2001 season ranked No. 1 in the Student Sports FAB 50, which was released before any other national ranking in late July. It was reasoned in the introduction to those rankings that the Spartans would deserve to be No. 1 nationally if they were to beat Long Beach Poly, the team from last year's final FAB 50 with by far the most returning talent, and finish unbeaten for the 10th straight season. The introduction also stated that the Jackrabbits would deserve to be No. 1 nationally if they were to beat De La Salle, finish unbeaten and win their fourth CIF Southern Section Div. I title in five years. All of the other national rankings that followed basically agreed with that line of thinking. Whether Poly is in the No. 1 spot or De La Salle, it doesn't matter. They're playing and the winner would and should have the inside track to finish No. 1 in every national ranking.
The only recent game to compare to this week's De La Salle-Poly showdown is the aforementioned De La Salle-Mater Dei contest of 1998. For Northern Californians who had heard for years how top NorCal teams would all get crushed by the best of SoCal, that game had huge ramifications. De La Salle proved that the best NorCal team could not only compete with the best of SoCal but at least in some years the top NorCal team could be better. Now that that point has been made, this year's game seems to be more about SoCal pride. After all, if De La Salle wins, the Spartans will have beaten the region's best program of the 1990s four times and the best of the last five years once. This may be SoCal's best—and perhaps last—shot at knocking some polish off De La Salle's resume.
And what a resume it is. De La Salle's national record winning streak is now up to 116 games, a whopping 44 more than the second-longest on the all-time U.S. list for 11-man teams. There also was a 34-game win streak before the current one and just five losses since 1983. The Spartans have scored at least three touchdowns in every game of their winning streak and have scored at least four in all but one. All of those numbers have continued to build since that 1998 Mater Dei contest, adding even more fuel to this week's showdown.
The possibility of De La Salle playing Long Beach Poly this year arose after the 2000 season, when administrators and coaches at Bishop Amat of La Puente, the school the Spartans were originally scheduled to face this weekend in Southern California, let it be known they wanted to find a way out of facing De La Salle again. Bishop Amat went to Concord last October and lost 56-0. It just so happened that the Jackrabbits had an opening for the same weekend. Negotiations between the schools involved began. Getting Amat to back away from its home game vs. De La Salle was not a problem. The sticking point was that Long Beach Poly wanted a home game against De La Salle and would not be able to guarantee a return trip to Concord next year as part of a home-and-away contract.
Knowing what would likely happen if the game would not have been played, which is that both teams would finish unbeaten this season with continuous bickering between fans from north and south, De La Salle athletic director Terry Eidson went ahead and agreed to play.
This year's game grew in significance in the spring and summer. Several Long Beach Poly players looked great at the Southern California Nike camp, especially offensive lineman Winston Justice, who afterward leaped up on just about every national top 100 recruiting list. The Jackrabbits already had four returning players from their 2000 team that were among most top 100 lists -- running back Hershel Dennis, tight end Marcedes Lewis, safety Darnell Bing and defensive tackle Manuel Wright. De La Salle has All-Americans on its roster, too, including quarterback Matt Gutierrez and two-way lineman Derek Landri.
Since the beginning of the season, several more players from both teams have emerged as standouts. Long Beach Poly sophomore speedster Derrick Jones has given quarterback Brandon Brooks a legitimate deep threat at wide receiver and junior linemen Kevin Brown and Samson Satele look like they'll be among the state's top recruits for next year. For De La Salle, running backs Alijah Bradley and Maurice Drew have become dangerous performers to complement Gutierrez in the backfield, tight end-linebacker Nick Barbero has made plays on both sides of the ball and, at corner, the duo of junior Damon Jenkins and soph Willie Glasper has been sensational.
De La Salle won its opening game 56-14 over defending Central Section champ Buchanan of Clovis, then two weeks later in Stockton took apart Mater Dei 34-6. Head coach Bob Ladouceur and his staff know their team's passing game may be a key in this weekend's matchup, so they worked on it last Friday in a 42-0 victory over St. Francis of Mountain View. Gutierrez completed eight of 15 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown, a 60-yarder to Chris Wilhelmy in the third quarter. The De La Salle defense did not allow a completed pass and the first-stringers have not allowed a point in the first three games.
The Jackrabbits fine-tuned themselves for their showdown against De La Salle with a 70-0 romp past Fontana. Dennis carried just six times, but had 100 yards and four touchdowns. Brooks also hooked up with Jones for touchdown passes of 75 and 72 yards. And like the De La Salle first-string defense, the Long Beach Poly first-string defense also is unscored upon this season after three games. The Jackrabbits' first two victories were 37-0 over Westchester of Los Angeles and 28-6 over Narbonne of Harbor City.
The game on Saturday at Veterans Stadium is expected to sell out. Poly officials had sold nearly 10,000 tickets as of last Saturday and another 2,000 were available at the beginning of the week. If it does sell out or even if it doesn't, a record television audience for a high school sporting event in California is expected to watch a live broadcast on Fox Sports Net 2. Check local listings to see if it's available in your area. Student Sports will also be posting minute-by-minute updates on the new De La Salle vs. Long Beach Poly messageboard, for those who can't watch the broadcast on television.