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De La Salle reflects on missing nationally televised opener in Texas

For De La Salle High, playing Saturday night in Texas on national television and in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 people was going to signify more than just the start of its football season.

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The trip to play the country’s No. 5-rated team, North Shore of Houston, was also a clear reward for the Spartans’ seniors who helped maintain the school’s excellence on and off the field the past 3-4 years.

Yet, as we’ve learned the past few months, best-laid plans are no match for COVID-19.

It’s been more than two months since the Texas-sized showdown became a coronavirus casualty, but De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh can’t stop thinking about the game that never will be.

“I told my wife we were supposed to be flying to Houston (Wednesday) and now we’re not,” Alumbaugh said earlier this week. “It kind of feels like Houston here right now, but we’re not going to Houston and it’s sad.”

Somewhere in his house, Alumbaugh still has a copy of the Spartans’ original travel itinerary for this week. He didn’t need to find it to remember they planned on practicing early Wednesday morning before school, and then heading to the airport after class. After arriving in Houston Wednesday night, they’d prepare for a normal practice Thursday in Houston’s abnormal humidity. After a walk-through practice Friday they’d have a team dinner, probably featuring barbecue. Friday night’s highlight would have been a team outing with some sort of historical significance. It all would have led up to game day on Saturday.

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NORWALK, CA – DECEMBER 14: De La Salle quarterback Dorian Hale (10) throws a pass against St. John Bosco in the fourth quarter of the 2019 CIF State Football Championship Open Division Bowl Game at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. St. John Bosco defeated De La Salle 49-28. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

For Lu Magia Hearns, the Spartans’ Cal-bound receiver and cornerback, a Houston trip also would have been a perfect excuse for a family reunion.

“Most of my family was coming. My older cousins planned a trip and they were all starting to book hotels,” Hearns said. “It was a big bummer it got canceled.”

Dorian Hale, the Spartans’ third-year starting quarterback who will play at Sacramento State next year, also regrets what he and his teammate are missing out on as seniors.

“When you have a season opener that big it makes you want to work hard, work for the person next to you,” said Hale, a dual-threat quarterback who last year threw for more than 2,000 yards, ran for nearly 600 more and accounted for 23 touchdowns. “Going off to Texas, we were going to have something to look forward to all summer because summer at De La Salle is not easy.

“I think it would have been super exciting, it would have been a really good game. I’m sad about what I would have played in.”

As sympathetic as Alumbaugh is to what his kids missed out on, the bigger picture is as clear as ever to him.

“We try not to get into the ‘woe is me’ thinking,” said Alumbaugh, whose team is ranked No. 17 in the country in MaxPreps’ preseason poll. “My heart goes out to them. I can’t imagine if it was my senior year and this happens. But it’s important to keep perspective.

“The key is we’re trying to keep people healthy. It doesn’t mean them being bummed out is not OK. Most kids are keeping it in perspective. But they’re 16 or 17, they want to go and do things. They want to hang out together. It’s important to hear them out.”

De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh coaches against Amador Valley in the second quarter of their game at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Besides, Alumbaugh has been working to find another prize for his team. It would be in the form of adding a big game to their regular season, set to begin in January. Because of coronavirus restrictions, it’s most likely an in-state game.

“I want to give the kids something to look forward to,” he said.

First things first, though. They’d love to simply get back into the weight room. And the Spartans, like every other school in the Bay Area, are still wondering when they’ll get the go-ahead to practice as a full squad.

“They’re just getting antsy,” Alumbaugh said. “We worked out through the summer. We were supposed to work out again last week and we had a massive heat wave. Then came the smoke. It’s like, ‘Coach, what’s the deal here? This just sucks.’ I’d like to have something better to tell them than, ‘You know, this does suck.’

“It’s challenging times for us all. So we try to keep perspective.”

Sometimes, as Alumbaugh has found out, a proper point of view can come during the simplest of times.

While he and his wife were giving their two toddlers a bath earlier this week his mind wandered back to more normal times. Back to when he’d be deep in preparations for an upcoming weekend game.

“I joked with my wife, I said, ‘You know, I wouldn’t have even been home yet,” Alumbaugh said. Without missing a beat, his wife said, “Yeah, I’d probably be annoyed with you, too,” before correcting herself and saying, ‘I mean, I’d be anxious for you to get home.”

Then they both broke into laughter and, for a few moments at least, that trip to Texas didn’t seem like such a big deal.

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