The wake-up call for this year's De La Salle High football team came 3,000 miles from home in late September.
Sitting in the visiting locker room after a 30-6 loss to St. Thomas Aquinas-Fort Lauderdale (Fla.), the Spartans looked about as far away from defending their California Interscholastic Federation Open Division title as they could be.
That loss served as a learning opportunity, one that could provide the blueprint when De La Salle faces Westlake-Westlake Village on Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Open Division championship at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
"We learned that we're not as good as we thought we were," linebacker Michael Barton said of the Spartans' only loss. "We thought we could just put on the jersey and think we're De La Salle Spartans. That game opened our eyes, and we realized we had a lot more work to do."
Since that game, De La Salle (12-1) has been unstoppable in winning 10 straight. The early-season jitters stayed in Florida, and the team returned to California set on avoiding the bitter taste that came from a cross-country letdown.
"We just went back to basics," De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur said. "We couldn't even hang on to the football, we couldn't protect the quarterback very well. We just went back to real basic things, drill work. I thought that helped us on our road to recovery and to better football."
Westlake (14-0) will provide the Spartans' first real test since that Aquinas game.
Much like Aquinas, Westlake will rely on an offense based on speed. Justin Moore is one of the state's best dual-threat quarterbacks. Dashon Hunt carries the load in the backfield but is committed to UCLA as a defensive back. And the offensive line has been one of the state's best all year.
The Warriors know what they're up against. Tiapepe Vitale has emerged as a top-flight running back, and Wisconsin-bound quarterback Bart Houston has continued to improve as the season has gone on.
"They're very worthy of the ranking of the top team in the state," Westlake coach Jim Benkert said. "We're looking forward to playing the underdog role a little bit. We've been the favorite for 14 weeks."
One thing working in De La Salle's favor is that no matter how good the Warriors are, it won't be anything new for the Spartans. A win would mean a third straight Open Division title heads back to Concord, and for that to happen, the lessons learned in South Florida will need to be applied.
"I think they're comparable to Aquinas, I really do, but I think we're a better team than when we played (Aquinas)," Ladouceur said. "Nobody's been able to stop them, for one, and their defense plays very aggressive too. ... They're just as good as any team we've played (in a bowl game)."