The Concord De La Salle Spartans, California's top high school football team, make their annual trip to the Home Depot Center in Carson on Saturday looking to finish off a 15-0 season against Corona Centennial in the CIF state championship Open Division bowl game.
De La Salle Coach Bob Ladouceur is 398-25-3 since he took over the program in 1979. His national record 151-game winning streak over 12 perfect seasons that ended at the start of the 2004 season remains one of the most remarkable achievements in prep football history.
But Centennial has one important element in its favor — a coach who has a win over Ladouceur. Centennial's Matt Logan guided the Huskies to a 21-16 victory in the 2008 Division I bowl game after losing to the Spartans, 37-31, in 2007.
"The biggest thing I learned is how they maximize what they have," Logan said. "They get every ounce from their players. They do what they do and do it well."
De La Salle has qualified every season for a state bowl game since the event's inception in 2006, and the Spartans are trying to win their fourth consecutive Open Division championship. The last two seasons, the games weren't close. Westlake Village Westlake was beaten, 35-0, and Anaheim Servite went down, 48-8, in 2010.
One of the biggest challenges is preparing for De La Salle's two-back veer attack. It's an offense rarely seen in Southern California, and having only three or four days to prepare a defensive unit for what to do is not always pleasant.
"You have to shift gears, because you have to play power against power," Westlake Coach Jim Benkert said. "You're not playing the finesse team that a lot of teams are in Southern California. Their offensive line comes off the ball fast and hard and low."
Westlake's defensive players didn't figure out what was happening to them until halftime, and by then, the game was over.
"You have to be very disciplined on defense, follow the guard, read your keys," Benkert said. "They kill you at the tight end position."
Mission Viejo Coach Bob Johnson enjoyed success against De La Salle with back-to-back victories in 2004 and 2005.
"They do the simple things over and over," Johnson said. "They don't change for anybody. They know what they're going to do. You have to play error-free football."
Another one of those rare coaches owning a victory over De La Salle is Harry Welch of Santa Margarita. His Canyon Country Canyon team defeated the Spartans, 27-13, in the inaugural Division I bowl game in 2006.
"They've always prided themselves on their superior execution," Welch said. "Other teams play their opponent. Ladouceur is really focused on his team."
De La Salle, located 30 miles east of San Francisco with an enrollment of 1,000, is an all-boys school founded in 1965. Tuition is $14,850. It has produced some big-time players, such as Maurice Jones-Drew, Amani Toomer and linebacker D.J. Williams, but mostly the Spartans are known for turning undersized athletes into exceptional high school players.
"Coach Ladouceur takes pride in his precision," Welch said. "His offensive line has the precision of a college offensive line. They are technically sound and fundamentally excellent and always have a chance because they do the little things well."
Servite Coach Troy Thomas said being "fundamentally strong" on the offensive and defensive lines is most important to competing with De La Salle.
"In order to beat them, you have to be real good up front," Thomas said.
Centennial (14-1) has one of the best offensive lines in Southern California.
Thomas likes one other quality possessed by the Huskies: experience against the Spartans.
"Their kids know they're capable of beating them and losing to them because they're 1-1," he said. "That's an advantage. Sometimes you go against De La Salle and they have the 'it' factor. De La Salle believes they're going to win because they do all the time. Centennial has the same feeling."
Thomas also sees another quality that he likes from Centennial: a family attitude.
"They play for each other," he said. "That's a key ingredient in a championship team. I think it's going to be a great game."