De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) was the archetype of a high school football powerhouse when Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) head football coach Kenny Sanchez grew up in the Bay Area.
When he was middle school, he went to a football camp at De La Salle, then coached by the legendary Bob Ladouceur, who is now an assistant for the Spartans. When Sanchez got his first high school coaching job in 2004, as an assistant at California High (San Ramon, Calif.) to his brother Tony Sanchez, now the head coach at UNLV, it was just after De La Salle ended its national-record 151-game winning streak.
“I’m a defensive guy, so I was always impressed with what they did defensively,” Sanchez said. “They didn’t look complicated, but they did a really good job of lining up and playing their scheme to whatever offense they would see. They always tackled really well and ran to the ball really fast. I took something out of that as a young coach. Just from a program standpoint, growing up in the Bay Area, you were always impressed by the program they ran.”
Sanchez was Gorman’s defensive coordinator when the Gaels lost 28-14 in 2010 at De La Salle, which went on to win the state title. While his teams have never beaten the Spartans, Sanchez’s Gaels have a chance this season to become the only team besides De La Salle to win four consecutive Super 25 titles. De La Salle won the Super 25 title from 2000-2003.
It won’t be easy. Bishop Gorman, No. 4 in the Super 25 preseason rankings, opens its season with four elite teams, the last of which is preseason No. 10 De La Salle. On top of that, the Gaels have few returnees from a group that won 54 consecutive games. Quarterback Tate Martell and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett are at Ohio State, while wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey is at Nebraska. Defensive back Bubba Bolden is at Southern Cal. Running back Biaggio Ali-Walsh is at Cal.
“I’m excited this year,” Sanchez said. “We’ve almost had the same teams for the last three years. This is a brand-new team. There’s a huge challenge for them. I really like this group, but I don’t know how this is going to turn out. I told the kids, ‘I’m not sure how good we are. … The fun part is finding out who you are.’ I’m excited as a coach.”
De La Salle will use a few three or four-receiver sets but primarily, the Spartans like to run. Their primary formation is a split-back veer, a timing-based offense that opponents rarely see and have difficulty preparing for.
“If an offensive lineman’s footwork is off by inches, it throws the whole thing off,” De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh said. “If the ball hits the ground, there is behavior modification.”
While De La Salle and Bishop Gorman run different schemes offensively and defensively, they do have one thing in common. They play tough early season schedules that prepare them to be dominant against teams in their region. De La Salle has not lost to a Northern California opponent since 1991, a streak of 266 games. Bishop Gorman has won 86 games in a row against Nevada teams.
“Whenever you can challenge your kids, it makes you rise in your preparation, it makes your team better overall,” Alumbaugh said. “That makes your team more dominant. It will be more physical, more battle-tested.”
Alumbaugh said Bishop Gorman, like De La Salle, has an intense offseason workout program.
“They have a great offseason program,” Alumbaugh said. “Those guys work hard. I’ve seen some of their offseason workouts. Those guys are intense. They have a great coaching staff and they have a lot of great players, obviously, but their offseason program is how they build continuity and get buy-in for their program.”
Sanchez said that’s the biggest similarity between his team and De La Salle, and that’s not by accident.
“When they were racking up all those wins and championships, people took a hard look at what they were doing in the offseason as to why they were successful and we’re no different,” Sanchez said. “Our offseason is key and pays big dividends throughout the fall. If we’re not ready for fall, we won’t be successful and (De La Salle) has done a tremendous job with their offseason program. The kids have to be behind your culture 100 percent.”
When De La Salle had its streak of Super 25 dominance, the Spartans were ahead of their time because they would play out-of-area nationally ranked teams. In their four-peat seasons, they played six nationally ranked teams from outside of Northern California. However, many top teams now play at least three games a season against ranked teams, making it harder to four-peat.
“If you want to be No. 1 or have a chance, you don’t give yourself a chance if you don’t play some of the best teams out there,” Sanchez said. “More people are going out now and playing out of state teams. When De La Salle was winning all those games, nobody was playing out of state games, though they were trendsetters doing that. Now teams are playing multiple games out of state.”