Season in seclusion, part 3: The drive for a state championship
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A half-moon brightens the First Baptist Church overseeing East’s first semifinals practice. Two nights and a graveyard separate the Leopards from Rice-Eccles Stadium as the therapeutic sound of floodlights supplements conditioning sprints.
“Only four of you are practicing right now,” East coach Brandon Matich exhales. “You’re going to look back one day and miss everything about this.” Joe Tukuafu exhaustedly rests hands-on-knees to Isaac Valles’ encouragement. The pain is temporary. “You’re after something special — 10-10s.”
Ten yards and back. Hands to the line. Ten times. Matich yells, “Be great! Be great at everything you do!” Now fully immersed in nighttime darkness, warm breath steams upward while Matich patiently awaits the remaining players. “What you’re about to do is very special, and I hope you realize how important and how big this opponent is,” he jaws. “It doesn’t matter who it is because they’re in our way. We’ve had this goal since Day 1.
“On Thursday we take care of the ball and give a perfect effort for 48 minutes, and we show Olympus that they don’t belong on the same field as we do. They do not belong. We have waited too long and been through too much together to have them stand in our way. We show up, and we take their hearts early. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” the team harmonizes.
Kickoff approaches. The team arrives at the school hours beforehand dressed in black hoodies, sweats and beanies. Ula Tolutau exposes a freshly shaven block “E” above his ear while Tukuafu adjusts his Tongan tupenu garment.
“You have the greatest families and community support than any other school I’ve seen,” Matich says in the special teams meeting, “but only those people want you to win. Everybody in this state can’t wait for East to fail. They are waiting for that moment. There is a lot of hate for you. A lot of hate for you cheaters, you recruiters, you thugs — you’re no good. You know what we do? We wear black and embrace the hate.
“See you in 24 minutes,” Matich finishes, cueing Sione "Baby" Tuikolovatu’s portable tailgate speakers to Britney Spears’ “ Baby One More Time” as the team belts the lyrics.
Players assemble in threes as Tualagi Laupata raises the school flag to the go-ahead. Rap music overshadows car horns vocalizing encouragement down Guardsman Way and 400 South. Inside the dark mahogany lockers underneath the south end zone of Rice-Eccles Stadium, Matich emerges from one knee. “Offensive starters today for this beautiful afternoon, I’ve got a message for you and it’s the same every (dang) week: Take care of the football, execute and maul their (butt).”
East paraded into the ring 12 times without touching the ropes. It was about to receive its first cut. Olympus lingered like a stray alley cat refusing to leave, jabbing back down 7-0 with Chase Manning’s 17-yard touchdown. Then again after Laupata’s interception return, Manning evened things up at 14-apiece with a play-action heave.
The moment of concern revealed itself. East had fallen into its postseason spell of turnovers and penalties, but with one minute and 22 seconds remaining in the first half, East’s Avery Hopkins opportunistically corralled a muffed punt in the end zone to unplug the Titans’ spark.
The newfound advantage widened with a 10-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard push by Valles in the third quarter. The next play Lorenzo Manu grabbed his state-leading 11th interception and punched the Leopards’ ticket to the state championship game.
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