POLY-DLS: Who will win?

Trying to pick the winner of this year's De La Salle-Long Beach Poly showdown is like having your arms being pulled in different directions by children.

On one hand, you tell yourself to never, ever pick against De La Salle. Only do it until after the Spartans have actually lost. There are many reasons why they've won 129 straight games and not many of them have changed this year.

On the other hand, as a wise and perceptive sportswriter, you want to be able to tell people that you said when the win streak would end and then it actually ended.

Both of those feelings have been formed by seeing both teams play at the First Hawaiian Bank Classic at Aloha Stadium. I've also followed both programs very closely for many years. I saw Long Beach Poly once in the 1980s when it had two future NFL Rookies of the Year on the same team, running back Leonard Russell and defensive back Mark Carrier. The first time I ever saw De La Salle was in 1984 and the Spartans lost. In fact, it took until the end of the 1992 season until De La Salle actually had a winning record in games I attended since I also saw losses in 1987, 1989 and the last one in 1991.

Both Louis Johnson of the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Greg Biggins of our staff feel that this year's Poly team is better than last year's squad that lost by 29-15 to De La Salle but still wound up winning the CIF Southern Section title for the fourth time in five years. I will say that this year's team is deeper than last year -- in fact, it's the deepest Poly team I've ever seen -- but I'm not convinced yet that it's a better team than last year. Marcedes Lewis, Hershel Dennis, Manuel Wright, Winston Justice and Darnell Bing were that good.

Going position by position, the only two units for Poly this year that don't seem to be as good or better than last year is the secondary and at running back. And while it's true that this year's quarterback, Leon Jackson, can throw it much better than last year's quarterback, Brandon Brooks, and that Leon is a much higher ranked college recruit than Brandon was, you also have to remember how well Brandon played in last year's De La Salle game. He had no turnovers, displayed solid leadership and put his passes where they needed to be. Leon can have all the talent in the world, but if he throws a pick or two vs. De La Salle or suffers a fumble or two he will not have executed the offense as well as Brandon did vs. De La Salle.

De La Salle does have a home field advantage since Cal's Memorial Stadium is just over the hill from Concord. But it's an advantage in name only. The Spartans have never played a game at Cal, either, and it's not as if Poly has not traveled that far for a game. The Jackrabbits' trip to Hawaii, with three nights in a hotel, should really help them this weekend. In fact, this year the Poly players won't have family and friends bugging them all day and night at home heading into the game. Coach Raul Lara and staff can lock these guys into their rooms and get them even more focused for what lies ahead.

The one intangible no one really knows about is what surprises head coach Bob Ladouceur and staff have come up with this time. In 1999, the Spartans came out in a triple wideout passing formation vs. Mater Dei and sophomore quarterback Matt Gutierrez simply shredded the Monarchs, who came out expecting to stuff the veer. Then last year, Ladouceur spotted something on Poly's films and decided to launch Maurice Drew. He beat linebackers all night, scored all four De La Salle touchdowns, and the national title was all but wrapped up.

From the two games I've seen, I can't imagine a similar surprise. I would say to look for creative ways in which Ladouceur can put the ball in the hands of players like Damon Jenkins, Willie Glasper and Cameron Colvin more often. I also remember that the Kahuku quarterback had some success against Poly running the option. Look for perhaps Britt Cecil to tuck it more than he has all season so far.

The two signs that don't look good for De La Salle is the 14 points the Spartans scored in their win over St. Francis of Mountain View and the three touchdowns they allowed against St. Louis. Yes, Drew was out vs. St. Francis but most of the last 10-12 teams the school has had still would have scored 35 against a team that lost by 21-0 the week before. The St. Louis offense also scored three times vs. the first-string De La Salle defense and the Long Beach Poly offense is much more versatile and deeper than the St. Louis offense.

While De La Salle's secondary is indeed terrific, the problem vs. St. Louis was that the quarterback was under no pressure at all even with four rushing from De La Salle. Defensive coordinator Terry Eidson probably will have to mix it up a lot against Poly, blitzing corners and safeties on some downs and dropping back eight on other plays. That is, if Poly comes out throwing. The Jackrabbits could just as easily come out running. While Hershel is gone, the Poly offensive line should have a much bigger edge vs. the DLS defensive line with Derek Landri not in there. The Poly backs are certainly good enough to run through holes when they are there.

The biggest advantage for De La Salle appears to be its receivers against the Poly secondary. If Cecil has the time to throw and the receivers play like they did against St. Louis, the De La Salle offense might be able to keep the Poly defense off balance. If Poly is smart, it will key on Drew and make the other players in the DLS offense beat them.

I guess what it boils down to is a feeling that De La Salle's team this year is just a player short of where it's been in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. There's no Matt Gutierrez and Derek Landri. There's no D.J. Williams and Kevin Simon. The Spartans are still better than 99 percent of the teams in the nation, but this time being a player short and going against the deepest football team in the history of the greatest high school sports program the nation has ever seen will make history of a different kind. The streak ends: Long Beach Poly 27, De La Salle 20.

Here's the picks and reasons for them from other members of our staff.

Doug Huff says: De La Salle 28, Poly 26. The Streak has taken on a life of its own but it has to end sometime...we think. The 129-game football victory streak has to rank among the most amazing feats in high school sports history. And winning 163 of its last 164 games is just as remarkable. But The Streak faces another in a series of major tests of the last few seasons. On paper, Poly should have won last year's matchup vs. De La Salle and appears to have the edge again. But I'm sticking with De La Salle until it ends.

Brian Stumpf says: Poly 31, De La Salle 21. Let me add to my pick by saying that I'm a huge, HUGE believer in De La Salle, and after seeing them take apart Poly a year ago, I never thought I would say what I'm about to say. But 20 years after "The Play" made history in the 1982 Cal-Stanford game in Berkeley, Poly will make history again in Memorial Stadium by snapping the Spartans' winning streak. Poly's depth and balance is the difference.

Nelson Tennis says: De La Salle 29, Poly 15. Because De La Salle is playing at home and I just don't think Poly is as good as last year. They've been talking it up a lot, and DLS has been keeping it low key.

John Tawa says: Poly 27, De La Salle 21. Last year, the Poly coaches tried to tell their players how quick and how precise De La Salle was, but the players didn't want to believe it and thought their athleticism would carry the day. Now they've seen the Spartans in person and will be ready against a De La Salle squad that is showing some vulnerability. The player of the game? Poly QB Leon Jackson, with his arm, his feet and his leg (he punts for the team).

Greg Biggins says: Poly 28, De La Salle 24. This game is so hard to call not as much because of who I think will win but a pact I made about three years ago. After watching De La Salle smash Mater Dei for the third time in a row, I was so impressed with their coaching staff and how well the team executed that I made an oath that I would never pick against De La Salle no matter who the Spartans were playing. After watching both teams this year, I think Poly has the better team and will win the game. I guess I have to break my oath, just this one time.

Sheldon Shealer says: Poly 21, De La Salle 17. Poly just looked far more athletic in the games I saw on TV from Hawaii. The line looked big and I really like that junior receiver (Derrick Jones).

Brentt Eads says: Poly 28, De La Salle 27 1/2. How can you pick against DLS? Well, the streak has to end sometime, doesn't it? Poly has three things going for it: the Jackrabbits are more of a team than last year's squad, the coaches have a full year under their belt and no one will take the Spartans lightly this time. But De La Salle is, for all intents and purposes, at home and Coach Lad is the greatest coach in the history of high school football, if not at any level. The Concord school should get a half point for that fact alone.

Jason Deegan says: Poly 28, De La Salle 27. If the streak goes down, it will go down on some freakish play to add to the legend of it 30 years from now. I foresee a blocked or missed extra point deciding it.

Jennifer Ezpeleta says: De La Salle 35, Poly 28. Bob Ladouceur all the way. Great coaches make all the difference in the world.<

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