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Season in seclusion, part 3: The drive for a state championship

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5 2014 8:28 a.m. MST

“Congratulations. You have one more game,” Matich says. “I’ve got to have special effort out of everybody. Guys, I’m so proud to be your coach. This game is our goal. We’ve been to the dance before, and we’ve had our hearts broken. Now we’re finishing the thing.”

***

Championship Monday begins with an unexpected voice — Kevin Elko, the “mental head coach” for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He’d spoken at a business conference earlier, and an East mother asked for his motivation. He obliged.

“I’ve got a message today for the East High Leopards,” Elko recorded. “Let me ask all of you a question. Why would a man climb Mount Everest? Why would they risk their life and go through all that pain? I think in every man and woman we like to know what we have and who we are. Don’t you want to know how high you can climb? I don’t think we were made to compare ourselves to others. I think we were made so unique that we can’t compare ourselves to anyone.

“How high can we go? How do you know the answer to that question until you give everything you have without judgment? I didn’t judge the score or what they did or the last mistake that happened — just judge how high you can climb. I think that’s why they do Everest.”

The practice concludes to a weakened buzz at the sight of Tuikolovatu grasping his knee. The senior leader gingerly limps after awkwardly folding during a non-contact squeeze drill. “He’s our best lineman — no question,” Matich says rubbing his eyes in frustration. “I don’t know how healthy he’s going to be. He had his knee brace on, so who knows? He’s a tough kid.”

Tuikolovatu’s assurances provide solace throughout the week. “I’m playing,” he grimaces. Surely enough, the mobility returns to his knee during evaluation drills days later. Trainers clear his participation as squalls of wind impede Friday morning title-game preparation.

Players swish cups of orange juice planted ahead of a memorial poster honoring the 1996 team’s 37-0 championship win over Timpview. In less than two hours the same opponent waits for the 2013 East Leopards.

Inclement weather ushers in busses. Players converse; others isolate in concentration. “Let’s go,” Matich instructs. The engine powers synchronously with his headphones. He pounds the seat, bobbing his head in tune when his phone vibrates. A black-and-white photo of his grandfather appears as he whisks away tears with his fingertips.

Matich manages to camouflage his emotions during pregame routines until he glances towards the scoreboard: 20 minutes. “I’m going to throw up,” Matich says reaching toward his pocket. “Gum?” he offers to nearby assistants. He keels over into the trash can cuddled against the wall.

It’s time. Matich wipes his mouth, redresses his pullover and enters the locker room to announce the offensive starters.

“Wide receivers No. 5, David Huntsman; No. 7, Joe Tukuafu.

“Left tackle No. 74, Big Texas, Michael Key.

“Right tackle, D-Mo, Dwayne, No. 77.

“Right guard, No. 52, Tennessee Suesue.

“Center, No. 56, Sione Mafua.

“Left guard, your anchor, No. 54, Sione Baby.

“Three-back, No. 10 — joystick, Preston Curtis.

“No. 1, Malakai Solovi.

“Quarterback, your leader tonight, No. 8, Isaac Valles.

“Your heart and soul, jumpin’ on your back, No. 2, B-Back, Ula Tolutau.”

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