Of all the various sectional rivalries that exist across the land, perhaps no other matches the intensity of the sparring created by the topic of which of the 50 states plays the best high school football.
Two of them — Texas and California — are putting away the words they use on the Internet chat rooms, blogs and other social media forums Saturday night and putting on their pads for a showdown that will include all the pageantry of the Lone Star State’s football customs.
ESPN2 will bring a nationally televised audience to the faceoff between De La Salle of Concord, Calif. — according to at least one poll, the top-ranked team in the nation and called by others the greatest high school program in the nation — and Euless Trinity, a perennial top-10 Class 6A program in Texas.
The game kicks off at 8 p.m. at Newsom Stadium in Mansfield.
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For one and perhaps only one day, all of California will be Spartans and all of Texas will be singing the Trojans’ fight song in a clash of football cultures.
Combined, the two schools have won nine state titles in the past 11 seasons, including six by the Spartans, a school of just more than 1,000 students, in California’s open division.
“We’re not getting into that aspect of it,” Trinity coach Chris Jensen said. “That’s fun for the fans to talk about. All that stuff is just junk that clutters the mind. We want to play well against a worthy opponent, and, apparently, there’s nobody better in the nation to go against.
“We just look forward to the opportunity to see where we stand compared to them.”
If Odessa Permian was once the face of Texas high school football, De La Salle is the same for the West Coast, but for completely different reasons.
The Spartans were a lowly program before the arrival of coach Bob Ladouceur in 1979, but 33 years later De La Salle is legendary. The school owns the nation’s longest high school football winning streak — 151 games from 1992-2004.
During the streak, De La Salle defeated opponents 44-10. The Spartans had more undefeated seasons (28) than losses (25) in Ladouceur’s 33 seasons.
“It’s absurd what he accomplished there. This guy has it figured it out,” said Neil Hayes, the author of When the Game Stands Tall who spent the 2002 season with the Spartans and was given unrestricted access to the team. The book was adapted to the big screen in a movie released with the same name last year. “The guy is so authentic, so compelling, his message so resonant. I think that’s the secret to the success.
“As one former player explained it, sometimes, it’s not the message but the messenger. I don’t know how better to explain it.”
Hayes recalled an episode he witnessed one day when Ladouceur and some coaches were cleaning out the coaches office. In the trash bin went not only old and broken equipment, but state championship trophies and other mementos of triumph.
Lad pulls out a California coach of the year football, that had been deflated, covered in spider webs and throws it into the Dumpster,” Hayes said.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, these guys don’t measure themselves the way most people measure themselves.’ All that stuff had no meaning.”
What is the message? As Hayes recalled Ladouceur telling him:
“Kids respect true humility and that you stand for something more than winning. They will fight for you and your program if you stand for more than that. It boils down to what you believe in as a person, and I’m talking about how life should be lived and people should be treated.
“Kids see all that. It’s a whole package of things that have nothing to do with standing in front of a team with a piece of chalk. You can know who to block and what play to call, but it has no meaning unless the kids know who you are. Our kids aren’t fighting for wins. They’re fighting for a belief in what we stand for.”
Today, Ladouceur is semi-retired. He is an “assistant’s assistant” for new coach and former player Justin Alumbaugh, who has ensured that the culture Ladouceur instilled all those years ago remains, Hayes said.
As does the winning. The Spartans are the defending open division state champions.
Ladouceur was famous, too, for his mandate, “You can’t play for me unless you can stand in front of your teammates and cry.”
Jensen of Trinity said his team was familiar with De La Salle through the movie. “They knew who they were,” he said.
“I thought it was a great story,” Jensen said. “I watched the movie from the standpoint of what a great program they’ve run from a character and team-building aspect.
“Football is just the vehicle we have to mold these kids into something beyond graduation.”
Yet, tonight’s game, Jensen said, is a “once-in-a-lifetime deal. They’ll be talking about this for the rest of their lives instead of not remembering who they played the first game of their senior year. I think it’s the same thing for De La Salle. Those kids will remember playing in Texas.”
While molding men, however, the programs, no doubt, also mold competitors.
That’s a large part of living well, too.
Despite what they might all say, everybody knows this game is different from the usual non-district opener.
“We’re looking for it,” Ladouceur told a podcast on Thursday. “It’s our first time in Texas and these guys are really, really good. It’s going to be a tough game. They play football a lot like us.
“We believe we play good football out here just like Texas.”
Tale of the Tape
De La Salle
Nearest big city
Dallas and Fort Worth
Why the name?
Represents tri-city H-E-B area
St. John Baptist De La Salle
Rivals starred recruits
Known nationally for
Noted NFL alums
*In the open division era.
Trinity vs. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle
8 tonight, ESPN2