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

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

Two minutes removed, Folau powers into Lucero’s throwing motion. The impact lowers the flight trajectory down to Tualagi Laupata’s welcoming arms for a 38-yard interception return. Ten minutes gone and East tasted a two-score lead.

“We felt like we were caged dogs in the locker room,” Matich said. Alta regrouped behind a 63-yard middle screen and a 10-yard Lucero touchdown pass, but with one minute and 36 seconds before halftime, Malakai Solovi returned the ensuing kick to midfield. It took seven plays before Valles baited the secondary and feathered a touchdown pass to Tukuafu.

Ula Tolutau sugarcoated the lead with a 57-yard burst in the second half — the first of many for the Wisconsin commit — in the 42-24 win. One down. “This is a statement game,” Tukuafu says confidently. “No more underdogs for us.”

The excitement subdues to news of the first mistake. Preston Burnett absent-mindedly crashed his scooter on Sunnyside Avenue. The collision shatters his hand, fractures his leg and potentially ends his high school career.

“I hit a medal plate with gravel on it and slipped out,” he says. “It could have been a lot worse. I’m lucky I didn’t hit my head. I didn’t have a helmet on.”

Burnett needs surgery, as does the team’s morale.

Matich understands emotional roller coasters. He is one. A blended perfectionist wisecrack. At practice he resembles a weathervane, pivoting at midfield during individual drills, never focusing on one specific position. He jokes with running backs coach Junior Solovi, but cuts off midsentence. “Head up!” he yells after noticing an improper tackle.

The whistle blows in succession. Three times the high-pitch sound pierces the water break, calling the attention of the players. Matich removes his grey Georgia Tech hat and yellow-trimmed Oakley shades as he wipes the sweat from his brow. The sun is barreling down. “This is the hottest practice of the year,” he chimes. The overbearing heat begins to interfere, and with a game against Kahuku 74 hours away, the team is sunburnt in apathy.

Tukuafu drops an uninspired one-handed fade. Curtis muffs a crossing route. Valles mistakenly overthrows the deep post instead of dumping down. In 20 minutes, five passes fall to the ground. “This is the worst display of hands I’ve seen in my life,” Matich says. “This is garbage. Maybe I should send you home?”

Dismissed and disappointed players self-enforce punishment at practice: hills and bear crawls. The discipline permeates into Friday. On the opening play, Valles threads an 80-yard vertical to Curtis as Kahuku’s fight covers in ashes.

Two down.

Less than 24 hours before East's nonregion clash against Jordan, the defending 5A state champions aren’t the topic of discussion. Running back Jager Chynoweth and Rush argue with Coach Mo Langi about the past.

“Are you talking about little league again?” defensive coordinator Gary Bowers inquires, shaking his head in disbelief as the horizon sets in the western sky. The remaining sunlight illuminates vibrant fall-changing leaves. Music starts. Players stretch, and clap in cadence to the "Rudy" soundtrack echoing off the bleachers.

Burnett hobbles near the sidelines capped in his retro California Angels flat bill hat with his left hand casted and right foot booted. He swings a brown paper bag disguised for sunflower seeds. “If I don’t put them in a bag everyone steals them,” he jests, cracking seeds pouched in his cheek while Folau stands at the 25-yard line. “It helps me get my mind right,” he says as the team closes practice on a hook-and-lateral to Curtis.

Matich addresses the troops with a dire look. “(Jordan) scheduled you for homecoming so they can beat you and have a good Saturday night,” he says. “We’re going to ruin that. Their dance is going to be ruined the second our busses roll up.” He strikes his hands together. Nothing more needs to be said.

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