Football

Emotional triumph: How De La Salle honored late coach with a win

CONCORD — On the toughest of days for the De La Salle football team, a day of tears and mourning the loss of a beloved assistant coach, head coach Justin Alumbaugh kept his pregame speech simple but on point.

“Do a great man the honor of having a great effort and having fun,” Alumbaugh told the players.

The Spartans had fun Friday night.

Hours after being told in a morning meeting that defensive line coach Steve Jacoby died suddenly on Thursday, De La Salle got a scoop-and-score from one of Jacoby’s guys, senior captain Drew Cunningham, and beat El Cerrito 31-12.

When it was over, the Spartans were emotional as they remembered a longtime coach who loved being a part of the storied program.

“It was heartbreaking news this morning,” Cunningham said. “It was a very tough process. It was a very long day. But our team, we banded together the entire day. We pushed through it. Everyone knew Coach Jacoby would want us to play this game in his honor. We played for him tonight.”

How it unfolded was Jacoby’s kind of game.

After forcing a three-and-out to start the night, De La Salle scored on its first offensive snap, a 60-yard pass from Toa Faavae to a wide-open Johnathan Guerrero.

The defense bit as Faavae rolled to his left, looking as if he was going to run, before connecting with Guerrero for the early lead.

The score was 10-0 late in the half when De La Salle forced a fumble and Cunningham picked up the ball and raced into the end zone. With each stride, the linebacker/edge rusher thought about his former defensive line coach, who had just turned 61 this week.

“That was all him,” Cunningham said. “God does great things. I am so thankful for it. That play was for him.”

Cunningham addressed his teammates during warmups, delivering a message they heeded from the outset.

El Cerrito quarterback Michael Vanhook (5) loses his helmet and the ball after being sacked by De La Salle's Matthew Johnson (56) in the first quarter of their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)El Cerrito quarterback Michael Vanhook (5) loses his helmet and the ball after being sacked by De La Salle’s Matthew Johnson (56) in the first quarter of their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Defensive linemen Matthew Johnson and Chris Biller took up residence in the backfield, making big play after big play as the Spartans held El Cerrito scoreless until late in the game.

“Coach Jacoby was one of the guys I’ve been with since freshman year,” said Johnson, a junior. “He’s one of the guys I kind of grew up with. Today was a hard day. I’ve spent the most time with him out of any of the coaches. He was like family to us. I am proud of my guys for holding it together.”

Alumbaugh said he let the players decide whether to play Friday night.

The call was an easy one.

“We immediately knew that we needed to play,” Johnson said. “That’s what he would have wanted. He would have wanted nothing more than to come out there with us. He would have wanted us to play a game like we did today and come out successful.

“We saw some guys that he put a lot of time into, and really wanted to see succeed, do some big things for us. It’s a shame he wasn’t there to see it. I am really glad that those guys came through. He would have been proud.”

De La Salle defensive lineman line up for the coin toss to honor defensive line coach Steve Jacoby before their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. The De La Salle football team played with a heavy heart after after finding out earlier that morning that defensive line coach Steve Jacoby had passed away suddenly. The team got together and decided to play El Cerrito in his honor. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)De La Salle defensive linemen line up for the coin toss to honor defensive line coach Steve Jacoby before their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. The De La Salle football team played with a heavy heart after finding out earlier that morning that defensive line coach Steve Jacoby had passed away suddenly. The team got together and decided to play El Cerrito in his honor. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Alumbaugh teared up after the game as he remembered his friend, a coach who had been with the De La Salle program since 2006.

“I hadn’t walked out onto the field without him since 2005,” Alumbaugh said. “He was here in spirit. He’s a very well-loved man because he’s a great man. A hard night, but I am glad our guys got to experience some joy. Our kids deserved that, and Steve deserved it.

“I know from on high, he got to watch our boys do what he loved watching them do, which is play a game and play together and enjoy themselves.”

De La Salle and El Cerrito weren’t even scheduled to play until Wednesday. Both programs had teams cancel on them earlier in the week.

De La Salle's Andrew Cunningham (18) recovers a fumble by El Cerrito quarterback Michael Vanhook (5) and runs it in for a touchdown in the second quarter of their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)De La Salle’s Andrew Cunningham (18) recovers a fumble by El Cerrito quarterback Michael Vanhook (5) and runs it in for a touchdown in the second quarter of their game at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

El Cerrito was told about Jacoby’s passing on Friday morning and immediately sent condolences in a group text.

“We’re praying for the Spartan community and his family,” coach Jacob Rincon said after the game.

Alumbaugh, when asked what Jacoby meant to his program, said, “You can’t replace Steve Jacoby. You can’t replace him as a coach and you can’t replace him as a friend. He added a lot of heart. He just so genuinely loved people.

“It was infectious and that is something we try to preach at our school, caring for one another. I am forever thankful that I got to call him my friend.”

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