Season in seclusion, Part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 9:40 a.m. MST

“There’s a huge audience out there (that’d) go, ‘You’re still not accepting the fact that you had ineligible players,’” Sagers admitted. “That’s a vantage point. The bottom line is we did have ineligible players.”

Matich inhales as if he’s trapped in a nightmare. The animosity pulsates. “I’ll be mad forever,” he fumes. “At the end of the day this is about kids and I think that was forgotten. I’ve been raised by my parents to let things go and don’t harbor bad feelings, but I’m openly angry about it.”

East’s postseason fight began the fourth week of October. The Leopards buried Mountain View in the play-in game while Matich lifted at the local gym. “I think I did everything you possibly could to your body,” he said. “ ... I would ride the bus with my guys to the game and my brother, Chris, would follow us in my truck, and then I’d take my truck and leave.”

Herriman crumbled next; Box Elder followed. “Somebody accused us that I was calling plays (at Herriman),” Matich said. “From where? The pine trees? The condominiums behind the school? ... There wasn’t a gym that I could find in Box Elder,” he smirked. “I fell asleep in my truck in the Arby’s parking lot.”

But it ended there. As if the paperwork storm condensed into actuality, East eroded in a semifinal blizzard. Four fumbles and one interception later the Leopards washed away against Timpview, 32-14.

“At the end of the day it was too much. We were a better team than Timpview — no question,” Matich said. “Timpview was beautiful that day. They were perfect.”

The calendar flips nine times into August of 2013. The new-age Leopards arrive at the stadium in flip-flops and short-sleeved shirts etched with the Latin inscription “Decerto” or “Fight to the Finish.” Daylight peeks into the backdrop while players finger-comb their beach-mannered hair for media headshots.

“We decided we were going to grow our hair out for the whole next year,” Preston Curtis says of the white kids. “We saw some videos of Jared Allen for the Vikings and his mullet is pretty sweet. … It turned out pretty bad though. I got home and my dad just started laughing.”

Last season’s controversy feels like a distant memory now. Brimming with next-level talent, the Deseret News bookmarked East as the co-4A favorites with defending champion Timpview, but four coaches left the Leopards completely off preseason polls. The lingering discontent doesn’t slow the program’s everlasting desire.

“I can’t imagine what it would feel like,” Matich said of winning a state title. “It would probably be second to my kids being born and my wedding date. I can’t even put it into words.”

Fourteen games obstruct the pathway as the Leopards parade out for the season opener two weeks later, their arms welded in rows of four. The student section screams in adulation as if watching gladiators make way into the Roman Colosseum as T.I. and Jay-Z escort them from the loudspeakers:

“Bring 'em out/ Bring 'em out/ Bring 'em out/ Bring 'em out/ It’s hard to yell when the barrels in ya mouth.”

Curtis, Korey Rush, Sione "Baby" Tuikolovatu and Isaac Valles huddle together. “Congratulations. This is a lot of fun,” Matich smiles as the captains inch toward midfield. Alta is minutes away from an ambush.

The Hawks are five-point favorites behind touted quarterback Chipper Lucero and receiver Mack Richards. But, on the third offensive snap, Tukuafu chums Lucero into Folau’s strong-side blitz.

The sack grants favorable field position at the Alta 31-yard line, and six plays later Curtis scurries to a 7-0 lead.