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De La Salle's cross-country journey brought everything but victory

RAMSEY, N.J. -- At 5:51 p.m. last Saturday, Terry Eidson, the defensive coordinator for De La Salle High of Concord, Calif., opened the full-length glass door in Don Bosco Prep's cafeteria. Inside was his team's makeshift locker room, blacked out from passersby with a plastic garbage bag stretched from top to bottom. A little over an hour before kickoff, he inquired about which route his team would take to the field. Bob Murphy, a Bosco track coach standing in the hall, asked the visitor, "Need an escort?"

Eidson looked surprised. "Do you think we'll need one?"

"No," Murphy said, "but I just figured I'd ask."

The Californian, turning toward his players, said, "Alright, let's go."

Three Spartans seniors -- Terron Ward, Alex Taylor, Mac Hess -- stood at the front of the line and were followed by their 54 teammates -- paired off and walking hand-in-hand in a misty rain. Their cleats click-clacked the asphalt up a parking lot hill. Fans stopped and stared. Welcome to Jersey, fellas! screamed one Bosco student. The Spartans, dressed in white, moved in silence. This is not your day, De La Salle, yelled a maroon-clad fan. Another shouted, You traveled 3,000 miles for a loss!

When the team reached Granatell Stadium's chain-linked fence, they funneled into single file and squeezed through an opening between metal poles. Metallica's Enter Sandman blasted from the loudspeakers: Say your prayers little one ...

The Spartans were safe during warm-ups. Bosco waited to blitz them between the lines. From the opening possession (Ward was stripped of the ball on his first carry), to the second (quarterback Scott Herting was picked off) and thereon, the Ironmen attacked their cross-country guests in the return game of a two-year home-and-home series. By the time De La Salle settled down, Bosco was up 16-0, en route to an impressive 30-6 win over the nation's most storied program. "They absolutely smoked us," De La Salle head coach Bob Ladouceur said. "Tonight they were even better than we thought."

De La Salle originally agreed to travel east in 2003. Then the owners of a winning streak that eventually ended on the road in '04 with a national record 151 consecutive victories, they had flown down to Hawaii for one game, welcomed Evangel Christian of Shreveport, La., to its turf, and trekked to Seattle. In Don Bosco, Ladouceur identified a mirror program on the opposite coast. The Catholic schools -- enrolling all boys of similar student population size (Bosco 880; De La Salle 1,030) and charging tuition (De La Salle $13,900; Bosco $10,225) -- found further common ground in the national rankings. "We're De La Salle East and they're Don Bosco West," said Bosco coach Greg Toal.

Local politics restricted Bosco's attempt to go national at first. Its league -- the Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League -- would not allow for an out-of-state game to be played due to a scheduling conflict. Even when Bosco administrators found a team to fill its slot, the league denied its request. "They didn't want to set a precedent of teams pulling out once the schedule is made," said Bosco athletic director Nunzio Campanile.

Talks resumed in 2006 when both schools played in the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge -- an annual showcase bringing elite teams to face Ohio powers in Cincinnati. Coaches crossed at a Denny's, greasing the rails for another attempt. When the Ironmen filed a petition to play a third out-of-state game last season, they locked up a date with De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz. "I'd never seen any school so willing to travel and play top 25 teams for a challenge," said Lopoz, who came to an agreement to defray the $70,000 trip with both schools contributing to each other's travel over the two years.

Lopoz and De La Salle's staff put a face -- and voice -- to the Bosco mystique from video via YouTube. The setting was a classroom converted into a locker room, and Toal, intense as ever with his facial tics and Jersey Boy theatrics, fired up one of his famous football-and-brimstone halftime talks. The former Virginia Tech fullback spoke of how Don Bosco, a saint from the town of Turin, Italy was a "tough guy". He wanted his boys to be tough guys too, and that's why they practice so hard. "The marines stormed Okinawa!" Toal says in another snippet. "We're going to fight just as hard!"

The grit translated on the field as well. De La Salle jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead last October on their home FieldTurf, but Bosco took over from there, out-passing the West Coast power with its spread attack and stymieing its vaunted veer offense to rally for a 23-21 victory. "They left us shocked," said senior lineman Chris Lawrence. "It was a quiet aftermath."

Revenge was plotted over the winter. After a team meeting in February, De La Salle coaches called the rising seniors into the weight room and read off the schedule. They circled the Sept. 12 matchup as a chance at redemption, but there would be a level of concern heading in. Three quarterbacks competed for the starting position over the summer, and all three played in the opening win over Juniperro Serra. Coaches -- who had exchanged scrimmage video tapes with Bosco -- did not name a starter in the days leading up to the "Rematch in Ramsey", read one T-shirt.

"There are no secrets," said De La Salle assistant Joe Alliotti as the Spartans practiced at Bosco's rival St. Joseph in neighboring Montvale. "The team's systems are the same as last year."

Familiarity was one thing, but there was also an atypical friendliness to the affair. De La Salle's flight landed at Newark Airport around 11 Wednesday night, and the team bused north through the New York City suburbs. When they walked into the lobby of their hotel, they saw a banner that read "Welcome De La Salle". Bosco's cheerleaders had sent it over. The girls from Bosco's sister school also sent a bouquet of balloons for their parents at a nearby hotel. De La Salle transported to practice in two yellow buses that read "Don Bosco High School" on the sides. The enemy was even allowed in Bosco players' homes. Senior linebacker Ryan Cobb's parents hosted the visitors for a reception two nights later. "[Cobb] invited us into her house and heart," said Linda Colvin, who has put two sons through the De La Salle program.

Ladouceuer, a laid-back theology teacher accustomed to leading religious retreats and giving team-building speeches to Kiwanis clubs, added educational elements as well. On Thursday night, less than 12 hours before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, players walked the downtown streets where the twin towers fell. There, amongst the construction cranes and barb-wired fence, Eidson led them in a prayer for peace, Our father, who art in heaven ... On one street corner, a man in a beige windbreaker cautioned the pedestrians, including the teens in green warmup suits, "Never forget!"

The next two days were dedicated to football. Like a Division I college program, the team took over their hotel's second-floor conference room for preparation, reading off assignments and reciting the team's traditional "Mother's Prayer". They departed the hotel in two white chartered buses at 4:58 p.m. wearing steely looks.

All courtesies extended beforehand were checked at the field. Toal, whose disciplined approach has turned Bosco from a doormat program to a dynastic power in his 10 years at the school, told his Ironmen that they would outlast the Spartans. "This game was won in June when our guys made the commitment to work hard," said Toal, who will take his team, ranked No. 8 nationally, on the road to Prattville (Ala.) next weekend.

Herting never looked comfortable under center. Bosco's attack-dog defenders hurried his throws and fed off his inexperience. No Spartan was safe, even on kickoff returns. Though tailback Tyler Anderson broke a long return up the left sideline in the second quarter, the lasting image back down the field was of lineman John Wallunas strewn on the ground, attended to by trainers after being blown up on a block. "One of our guys almost knocked him out cold," said one Bosco coach.

After the clock struck zero, the scoreboard still burned brightly with its 30-6 reminder as the Spartans hurried back through the one-person-at-at-a-time entrance, down the hill to their locker room and onto their chartered buses. "It's a different kind of football when you go out of state," Anderson said, carrying his travel bags with him.

Meanwhile, Bosco's players circled around Toal on their side of the field. Moved by the moment, the graying coach started to spike his right arm toward the ground, and yelled, Can anyone beat Don Bosco? His players responded, Hell no! He asked the question three more times. The echoes of their chants would carry all the way to California.

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