Season in seclusion, Part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the second of three-part story about the 2013 East High Leopards football team from two-a-days to its runner-up finish in the 4A state playoffs. Read part one here
Sina Suesue became enamored with playwright author Tennessee Williams studying English at the University of Utah. Her husband, Helaman, fell in love with the Smoky Mountains during an extended stay in the South. The couple was pregnant and pondering birth names when one suggestion seemed obvious.
Nine years later, the young boy’s health declined. Twice Tennessee nearly succumbed in Sina’s arms. “One of the times he was with my wife and he got really cold,” Helaman said. “ ... His heart went to a place where he passed out and the nurse literally had to jump on his bed and resuscitate him.”
Procedures confirmed he had cardiac arrhythmia as his rapid, irregular heartbeat exceeded dangerous levels approaching cardiac arrest. The only stabilization was an electrical pacemaker, which confirmed Tennessee’s worst fear: no football.
“I felt like I couldn’t do anything, like I was paralyzed,” Tennessee said. “Football is something for me and when they told me I couldn’t play anymore, it was like I couldn’t do anything.”
Years passed before he underwent an ablation surgery in 2009 to burn the disruptive tissue. “It cured my heart situation,” he said, referring to the removal date for his pacemaker. “It’s going to be weird without it. When I go to the airport I’m still going to think that I have to get hand-checked, but I can go through the metal detector.”
Medical personnel cleared him for physical activity. He dreamt of the day he’d finally leave the grandstands. With the power of a battering ram at 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, he quickly earned the starting spot at right tackle as a junior. “I was on the football field,” he said. “I was in the moment.”
It was walkthroughs the night prior to the Highland game in 2012 when East coach Brandon Matich delivered the news of his ineligibility.
“I thought I was going to get in trouble with my grades,” Tennessee lamented. “Coach (Matich) pulled me aside with my dad and told me I was ineligible. He said something with your papers went wrong and you can’t play for the rest of the season.”
He clenched his hands in the same bleachers he prayed many times to avoid, and the man known for breaking down defenders broke down himself. “Honestly, I felt like the world was going to end,” he said. “When I heard that I started bawling; I was crying because that was my first year back.”
Tennessee had transferred to East, where his father was coaching. He previously played three freshman games at West, but discontinued when his pacemaker activated.
“I was already up here (at East), so when him and his mom decided he could play when he got his approval from the cardiologist, my mindset was, 'He’s been out for a year and a half,'” Helaman said. “That’s why when I filled out my paperwork it was under the impression that he was fine.”
Tennessee and teammates Dwayne Finau and Lorenzo Manu, who’d transferred from Highland and West, respectively, under similar “hardship” assumptions, were ensnared in a vortex of controversy.
“People can say what they want about what happened last year,” Helaman said. “It was one of those things: I didn’t expect him to make that kind of a comeback. Even being out here on the field is a miracle in itself. I’m grateful that I still have my son, and he’s playing the game he loves.”
The damage was done and what transpired in the coming weeks tested the character and fortitude of the entire program. “It was probably the worst time in my administrative career,” East principal Paul Sagers described.
Utah High School Activities Association bylaws state that ineligible participation nullifies the result of a contest by the offending school and any record achieved is vacated. East faced elimination.
The night preceding East's final regular-season game, Region 6's Board of Managers imposed seven separate sanctions, including suspending Matich, but didn’t vacate any wins. “To hear that we were not going to have to forfeit games, and I would have to sit out the next game was what was right,” Matich said. “Going back to school and saying you guys are fine; they’re all in the room together — my whole team. I had to get in front of them and tell them, ‘You get to play.’”
It was only the beginning. “A couple hours later we get a call from the media saying, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t over yet,’” Matich explained. The five members of the UHSAA executive committee overruled the decision, and the top-ranked 4A team was finished.
“You can’t feel more than one emotion at one time, but I sure shifted emotions a lot,” Matich said. “There are a lot worse things in life, obviously, but at the time it sure didn’t feel like it.
“The panel every time was from Duchesne, Grantsville and Morgan — people who don’t understand our transient population and how people come and go, how three schools in our district share that same charter school, (how) we have homeless shelters in our district," Matich said.
Athletic director Kathy Butler resigned the position she’d held for 23 years, while Sagers appealed the decision. A sub-panel of the UHSAA's Board of Trustees agreed to hear the appeal on the same day the Leopards’ perfection spoiled with a 51-34 loss at Logan in the regular-season finale. “It was like a morgue,” Matich said. “We didn’t belong on the field that night.”
“Behind the scenes I had some weak moments. Before I went up (to Logan) I went home. My dad was home with both of my grandmas watching my kids and Andrea was at the game,” Matich said. “I walked in and I was 12 again. I walked in, saw my dad, sat on the couch, put my head on his shoulder, and I sobbed. I sobbed like a kid who had his heart broken by his first girlfriend. I told my dad, 'I can’t fight anymore — I don’t have anything left.'
“He hugged me for a minute and slapped me on the back of my head and said, “That’s bull. You’ll always have fight in you. Now you go fight for those boys.’”
Twenty-four hours from the original hearing, the sub-panel gathered to hear East’s plea. “I said, 'I’ll do anything to let our kids play,'” Matich voiced. “I’m an adult. You can beat the (heck) out of me. These kids get one shot. We were steadfast and honest with how we approached this. We never lied about anything. It wasn’t like, ‘(Dang), they caught us.’ It was, ‘He’s what?’”
The Board suspended Matich for three games, stripped East of its region title and allowed the school to participate as the region's No. 4 seed. The contradictory ruling besmirched the program as a target of scorn.
“You can feel it a lot, especially when you go out and wear your East gear,” Tight end Joe Tukuafu said. “They give you dirty looks.”
One mistake and East’s perception was acrimoniously tarnished across the state. The Leopards were nothing but cheaters, recruiters and thugs. “I feel like if they took their own time and tried to listen to our story, they’ll make sense of it,” Linebacker Christian Folau said. “ ... This team has a very special perspective.”
Sagers grasped outside hostility, but he alluded, “You can look at it like those people made mistakes, too. If they were to go back in time they might have behaved differently.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
They’d yawned through the regular season at record-setting pace. This story feels familiar, like a haunting folklore shadowing the program. “We’ve been recognized as a powerful team in regular season,” Tennessee said, “but come to playoffs we can’t finish.”
Rush agreed: “East teams in the past were always going to win games in the regular season and then we get to the playoffs and lose. I feel like we get stagnant and we get comfortable. I want us to keep gaining every day.”
“I do think it’s concerning,” Matich said of the repeating blowouts. “(When I coached) at Park City, we probably played in the worst region in America. We were beating teams 60-0 and we got in the playoffs and we play Hurricane and they pushed us back. You can’t prepare for that.
“I think our kids will be fine. They’re a tough group and they’ve been through a lot of adversity. But it is concerning.”
East draws Roy in the first round. Valles trots out with his newly trimmed cockatoo mohawk. It whips forward with every throw. “I did that by choice — it looks worse than it should,” he giggles before bantering with Tolutau about playing Xbox during warm-ups. He’d lost 6-0 in FIFA. “I’ve been working on my ‘NCAA,’ ‘Madden’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed,’” he excuses. “I’m probably the best on the team and that’s no joke. I’m serious. You’re in for a treat — I’ll play with Rice and I’ll beat you.”
The fourth-seeded Royals prove no different than the 10 before. East cements a 24-0 lead on Curtis’ 67-yard sweep, Isaac Anthony’s 34-yard field goal, Valles’ 2-yard dive and Solovi’s 33-yard run. The Leopards pile up 65 points on their way to the quarterfinals.
Days later the groundskeeper soils dirt to replenish the grass field. Polynesians joke about the comforting Island texture. “Only eight teams in 4A have practice today,” assistant coach Mikey Collins spouts. “You know what Highland is doing today? Basketball tryouts.”
Players absorb the moment knowing spectators will litter Tally Stevens Stadium with sunflower seeds and pistachio shells one last time in witness of first-year program Corner Canyon. They salivate at the mention of returning to Rice-Eccles Stadium. “You are 48 minutes away from walking to your next home game,” Matich preaches. “That stadium you see every day — no one has more right than you to play there. You are 48 minutes away, but so are they. You have to earn the right.”
The message resonates. Solovi single-handily accounts for a 14-point margin on a 60-yard reception and 74-yard rumble in the first quarter. The lead awakens Tolutau from hibernation. East feeds the beast for 211 yards and two scores. Twelve down.
Two to go.
Coming Wednesday: Season in seclusion, part 3: The Leopards make their run at the state title