De La Salle vs Pittsburg: The Impact of the 1991 NCS Championship Game
Since the winter of 1991, the De La Salle Spartans football team has not lost to a team from Northern California. The streak began with a loss to the Pittsburg Pirates in the 1991 NCS Championship Game. While the Spartan’s non losing streak is fascinating, the story of the Pirate’s great upset and the impact that was felt throughout the whole nation is still felt to this day.
The Build Up
Herc Pardi was frustrated. He had been an assistant coach with Pittsburg for the past decade and since taking over as the Pirate’s coach in 1991, he knew that his team could defeat De La Salle and their coach Bob Ladouceur but they kept on falling short. He had been preparing to defeat the Spartans since they joined their league, the BVAL, in 1988 and had assembled a competent and capable coaching staff. His team was confident in their ability, having beaten the Spartan junior varsity squad the past two years. However, the frustrations at the varsity level had eaten away at their patience. Beating the Spartans became their entire world. Not a day went by that each member of the team did not obsess about beating their enemy. They almost overlooked their matchup against Antioch High School, traditionally their biggest rival, and barely squeaked out a 26-20 victory in the Big-Little Game. With that win out of the way, Pittsburg was headed to the playoffs with an impending matchup with their most hated rivals.
The Pirates were a veteran group who truly loved one another. But love alone could not defeat this Spartan squad. They needed a plan but it was not ready for their first meeting. De La Salle defeated Pittsburg 35-28 in the first meeting that season, gaining 261 yards on their most basic play, the dive. However, the Pittsburg coaching staff was encouraged by running back Percy McGee’s 208 yards on the ground that evening. They felt that his ability on the ground could keep the game close in the first half, the first part of their strategy for defeating their nemesis.
The second part of their strategy was coming up with something new for the second half, something that De La Salle had not seen on film. The Spartans were great at halftime adjustments and the Pirates couldn’t risk showing their hand too early. Offensive coordinator Joe Aliotti was inspired by the University of Idaho which had run a spread offense while he was the quarterback at Boise State and Pittsburg had the personnel to pull it off. Quarterback Chris Shipe was the first quarterback in Pirate history to be allowed to call an audible as a freshman. He would finish his career having surpassed many of the records that Aliotti had set when he was a quarterback for the Pirates. Shipe would finish the 1992 season having thrown 26 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Percy McGee had rushed for 1,163 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1991 and his backfield mate Derrick Huffman was versatile enough to switch to receiver when Pittsburg unveiled their secret formation.
In addition to a new offense, the Pirate’s defensive coordinator Jerry Haflich had used a 4-4 defense to deal with De La Salle’s veer offense but after giving up so many big plays, they decided to move middle linebacker Jon Buxton to nose tackle, putting sophomore Charlie Ramirez in his place. With that move in place, the Pirates now featured five defensive linemen and two linebackers. They hoped that this new formation could help stifle the Spartan’s deadly passing attack which featured All-American receiver Amani Toomer who would go on to star at Michigan and the New York Giants. With all of these plans in place, the Pirates were prepared to defeat their nemesis.
On December 7, 1991, the NCS Championship Game lived up to the hype on the soggy field of the Oakland Coliseum. The two teams traded blows throughout the first half. Eventually, De La Salle led 21-14 with less than a minute in the half when Chris Shipe threw a 49-yard strike to Derrick Huffman, setting the Pirates up at the one-yard line. McGee scored on the next play and the game was tied.
Early in the third quarter, Pittsburg switched to their new formation, named “Pirate”. Originally in their regular split formation with three receivers lined up to the left, but then they had Huffman go to the right as a receiver and McGee line up behind Shipe as the lone back. De La Salle was immediately flummoxed and after two plays called a timeout. Over the course of the next half quarter, the Pirates drove down the field and scored a touchdown. Eventually De La Salle figured out what Pittsburg was doing and the matchups that Aliotti had hoped for never developed. But Pirate proved invaluable on its first drive as it gave Pittsburg some much needed momentum.
Eventually De La Salle scored a touchdown on a two-yard run by Patrick Walsh but missed the extra point, keeping Pittsburg in a 28-27 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, De La Salle quarterback Alli Abrew threw a pass to tight end Andrew Freeman but it was intercepted by McGee who took it 79-yards to the end zone. Defensive end Regan Upshaw ran stride for stride with McGee, giving him the protection that he needed to score the game clinching touchdown. The Pirates immediately mobbed McGee in the end zone, ecstatic about their impending championship. When the game ended, Pittsburg won 35-27, becoming the last Northern California team to defeat the De La Salle Spartans.
After their defeat to the Pirates in the 1991 NCS Championship Game, Patrick Walsh and Alli Abrew vowed to never allow that to happen again. The whole offseason, they pushed their teammates to work harder and to strive for more. They knew that they could go undefeated but they wanted more than just to win another NCS championship; they wanted to embarrass every team they faced, especially Pittsburg.
The night before their rematch with Pittsburg, Walsh described to his teammates how much their defeat the year before had hurt him. He described having put up the newspaper articles right next to his bed, making sure that that was the first and last thing he saw every day. He pleaded with his team, he begged his brothers, to remember the feeling and to unleash their fury on Pittsburg. There was not a dry eye in the room when he was finished and the game was essentially over when the meeting concluded. The next night, De La Salle avenged the previous year’s loss 44-7. But their vengeance was not complete until they defeated the Pirates in the 1992 NCS Championship Game 41-6. And the Spartans kept winning
With the weight of avenging their loss to the Pirates in the 1991 NCS Championship Game finally behind them, De La Salle proceeded to win 151 straight games. While most of the games were blow outs, they did have some close calls against teams such as Pittsburg in 1993 (26-21), Mater Dei in 1998 (28-21) and 2000 (31-28). Even after losing to Bellevue High School in 2004, the Spartans have maintained a streak of unbeaten games against Northern California opponents. The Spartans have had some close calls in recent years but they have stayed focused and pulled out win after win. Games against Palma in 2004 (7-7), Serra in 2008 (29-28) and Bellarmine in 2011 (26-23, 2OT) have only kept De La Salle motivated all the more to continue their unbeaten streak against Northern California opponents. The 1991 NCS Championship Game remains Pittsburg’s last title as well as their only time ever defeating their nemesis. Though the faces have changed on the sidelines, De La Salle carries on while team after team looks feverishly, yet in vain, to find the winning formula against the sleeping giant that was awoken by the Pirates in 1991.