Season in seclusion, part 3: The drive for a state championship
He rests momentarily to assistant coach Gary Bowers’ list of the defense. Two minutes lacquer the notifying clock. Matich’s voice trembles: “I promise you this: Today the suffering ends. There is no more suffering for East High School. Today a new king arises from the ashes because today is our day. Today we stamp permanently our legacy in the lore of high school football in the state of Utah as the greatest football team that ever played here. Today we assert our dominance. I love you with all my heart — Leopards ready.”
East begins at its 35-yard line. Three minutes and 10 plays later the Leopards cap a 65-yard scoring drive on Tolutau’s plunge from 2 yards out, but miss the point after. The Leopards force a quick three-and-out, and on the following play Valles freezes a defender with a spin move and goes untouched for a 13-0 lead.
“I don’t think that can ever be a bad thing,” Matich said of the quick burst. “It just depends on how you sustain it. I think offensively we came out and did everything we needed to do.”
Moments into the second quarter, Timpview’s acclaimed defensive end, Isaiah Nacua, furnished the Thunderbirds’ first score when he sacked and recovered Valles’ fumble. “He was the read key,” Matich explained. “Because he was in a 5-technique and went down to an inside technique he was still the dive key. But Isaac thought that’s who we were going to block, which wasn’t the case. He wasn’t ready for him to fire in there.”
It was the first of 21 second-quarter points spurred by Timpview quarterback Britain Covey’s escape ability. He couldn’t be contained. Time and time again the undersized junior evaded sure-handed sacks and extended plays with either his feet or arm. Covey was brewing a championship performance for the ages, and down 25-21 at halftime he’d get the ball to start the second half.
“You’ve got 24 minutes and a lead and all your dreams come true,” Matich encourages. “You have to ball out with all your heart and soul. We do this together; we do this for each other.”
The Leopards appeared to stunt Timpview’s opening drive, but a roughing-the-passer penalty breathed new life into the possession. Five plays later the Thunderbirds found the end zone and a 27-25 lead. East’s two third-quarter series were marred by penalties — a personal foul and a false start — and again on its six-minute scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Another false start and the Leopards settled for a 28-27 lead on Isaac Anthony’s 19-yard boot.
Timpview loaded up on Covey after a 31-yard pass initiated its response drive. He’d rushed four straight times to paydirt. With two minutes and 52 seconds left, East’s 14-0 perfect season was now a five-point deficit. The Leopards had marched across midfield, but it was now fourth and 6. This was it. Valles dropped back and before he scanned the field Timpview buried him. Like a recurring sickness it had happened again.
The Thunderbirds swung their arms in jubilation as East bowled over in agony. “My brain wouldn’t let me imagine losing,” Matich said. “I couldn’t even force myself to thinking that. I was so confident.”
Silence torments the bus leaving nothing but the sound of tires on concrete. Matich strikes the same cushion he had hours earlier in despair. Curtis sobs into his face mask while Jake Baptiste comforts Christian Folau. “This is your team now,” he says. “You’ll always be my boy.”
One by one, players despondently file into the lockers, eagerly waiting for an antidote to their pain. “I can stand here all day; I’m not going to find the right words,” Matich grieves. “This is the toughest one of them all. I’ve stood before you in this circumstance way too many times. I wanted this for you and again we were so close.”
He collapses into his palms. “All I can say is, like anything in life, we’re going to stand tall and persevere. One thing is for sure — your football coach will always love you. That will never change, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get it done for you.”