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

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

Halfway through the first quarter, pinned at their own 7-yard line, Tolutau knocks down a second-level defender, bounces outside the hashes, and takes off like he's in the Belmont Stakes. The quick-start offense pads its cushion to double figures for the third straight week on the following series. Then it got loony.

Jordan pulled ahead behind reigning Mr. Football, Austin Kafentzis, who scored on a 51-yard read-option run, followed by a 16-yard burst after East fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Leopards respond with a 3-yard Tolutau TD run before the Beetdiggers countered with a 95-yard kick return seconds later.

Thirty-seven combined points in 11 minutes and 56 seconds. In the next seven, East nearly matched the total unassisted. The Leopards reeled off touchdown runs of 75, 36 and 63 yards to marry Tukuafu’s 19-yard seam and Matt Webb’s 21-yard fumble return.

The flash flood swept away the 'Diggers and the state’s single-game rushing record, but not without consequence. Engaged with a blocker, Rush flung his arm outward as Kafentzis accelerated past. The momentum awkwardly stretched Rush's limb and tore his pectoral muscle.

“I found out two weeks after when we were getting ready to play Highland,” Rush said of his season-ending injury. “My initial reaction was shock, followed by a real emotional side. Both my mom and I broke down into tears. My next thought was: ‘I can’t let anyone else see this because I have to be someone that could be looked to.’”

“Essentially he was a four-year starter for me,” Matich said. “That was part of the emotion at Highland. … I’ve known that kid for a long time. He’s like another son to me. Losing Korey, I’ll be honest, it almost felt like a death because you know how important it is to him.”

Another near-400 yard rushing performance propels East past Woods Cross, 42-6, to open region play. The week is here: Highland. A rivalry rugged like Southern moonshine aged into its harshest state with 2012’s ineligibility feud.

“The tension was palpable,” Matich said. “It was unbelievable. Even in the handshakes before the game it was almost like we were getting ready for war.”

The energy clouded execution offensively. For the first time, East needed assistance from its defense, and it delivered with seven turnovers. “We had 135 yards in penalties that game and they had 127 yards of total offense,” Matich said. “I think that’s because we were so emotionally charged.”

Seventeen seconds stood between 5-0 when Matich unexpectedly motioned for timeout. “I was thinking he was going to have me run the ball for my last play,” Rush said. “I was looking over and saw (Highland stars) Bryan Mone, Cody Hilborn and Pita Tonga coming in. I was like, ‘I’m not trying to go run in that. I really hope you’re not going to get me hurt right now, Coach.’”

Matich’s intentions differed. “I said, ‘Isaac, I want you to turn around and throw (Rush) the ball and you guys all go hug him, so you can be on the field the last play.’”

Moments later, Valles sealed Highland’s fate with his knee and tossed the football in gratitude to his friend, captain and substitute tailback. “That was an awesome thing for him to do,” Rush said. “The respect that they have for me, the fact that I meant something to this team, that they’d do that for me, was awesome.

“I’ll have it forever,” Rush said of the game ball. “I’ll have my mom frame it when I leave. It represents my whole experience here. It’s been a good one.”

The ground hardens as the autumn temperatures glissade into winter. The midway point of the season presented little competition to East. The next five weeks strung the same melody. The Leopards sleepwalked past Cyprus, Mountain Crest, Clearfield, Bountiful and Kearns by an average score of 57-14.

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