SALT LAKE CITY — As the rain fell in a constant downpour, the top-ranked East Leopards seemed to just be going through the motions at the end of their huge rivalry win over Highland on a dreary Friday night, 34-13.
On this occasion, it certainly looked like the Leopards (8-0, 5-0 in Region 6) missed their head coach, Brandon Matich, who was serving a one-game suspension because he inadvertently played an ineligible player at the end of two blowout victories earlier this season.
“It was an emotional night for us. He’s definitely our leader. ... The boys were rattled to have to face a rivalry game without their coach and then carry that on top of playing in these conditions just seemed to compound the emotions,” said East High acting head coach Larry Eldracher.
The tests of facing “big games” in football are enormous in high school football, as teams learn how to handle the emotions and anticipation associated with highly anticipated contest.
Such was the case for both squads Friday.
East ultimately prevailed, while Highland walked away with a defeat.
“At the end of the day, we need to continue to provide them with opportunities and simulate these environments so they can become familiar with them,” Highland coach Brody Benson said “Then use that energy to help enhance their game, not distract from it.”
In Friday's big game, the Leopards' play in the first half was well executed and they scored on 75 percent of their possessions. The Rams (5-4, 3-2 Region 6), however, struggled to convert third downs and seemed to have a hard time settling into the routine of the game.
They finally seemed to come into their own by finding the end zone with only 1:32 left in the second quarter thanks to a 65-yard run by Adam Webber. This revitalized the home crowd and, like the words to a popular song, “set fire to the rain.”
Highland came out to the second half with a different gleam in its eye. Whether it was still the high from the Webber run or perhaps something the coaches said in the locker-room, the Rams started to click and perform plays that they had missed in the first half. East, on the other hand, while still performing like the well-oiled machine it is, started to show a few cracks by receiving double the amount of penalties they it received in the first half.
As regular-season play comes to an end, both teams will need to find that secret about handling big-game emotions, as the games will only get larger from here.
Chriss Anderson is a current writer for the Daily Utah Chronicle and can be followed on Twitter: @Chriss_Am_I