Le leads the 'D'

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2010

On the football field, Crimson Bears senior cornerback Vinh Le plays on an island. But the Railbelt All-Conference First Team selection doesn't mind.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

In fact, he prefers it that way.

In the blitz-happy defensive scheme of Railbelt Conference Assistant Coach of the Year Al Fenumiai, the secondary has the unenviable task of playing man-to-man coverage, often leaving defensive backs vulnerable to the deep pass. However, Le said this defense is different.

"It's usually a lot of trouble for coverage people like me because if the blitz can't get there, then the offense might find a lot of holes in the defense," he said. "But with our defense, I don't have to worry about covering much. The blitz makes my job easier."

While Le's humble approach to team defense is exactly what any high school football staff would covet, Bears head coach Rich Sjoroos said he knows what kind of individual talent and drive his cornerback possesses. And during a season in which Juneau-Douglas has lost several top players to injury or suspension, Le has been a constant for a team that relies heavily on its defense to set up its explosive offense.

"Vinh has been our shutdown corner. There's only been a handful of completions to his side of the field all year, and the other teams knew that," Sjoroos said. "He's more of a bump-and-run kind of guy. Most kids in high school don't like to do that because they know they're going to get beat, but he's got a strong jam up front ... and he keeps them from getting off the line."

And that skill set - one Le has modeled after New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis - is invaluable to a Bears defense that thrives on getting into the backfield.

"Deep routes take timing with the quarterback," Le said. "Without bump-and-run coverage, they would run slants all day. So my press style works perfectly with our blitz."

But in the eyes of Sjoroos, Le brings much more to the team than athletic ability. He is one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. Prior to the start of the season, Sjoroos designated two team captains without a team vote. One of them was sophomore quarterback Phillip Fenumiai, and the other was Le.

"It was an amazing feeling because my goal for my senior year was to be captain," Le said. "Like the refs say before every game, we're the captains and we're in charge of our team, and keeping them cool. My job is to keep the defense organized and focused on the field, and off the field."

But his senior season also was about something else: redemption. Le said he remembers the bitter feeling of defeat after the Bears' last-second loss to Chugiak in last season's state quarterfinals.

For him, it made last weekend's victory over the Mustangs that much sweeter.

"The worst part of it all was seeing all those seniors that realized their season was over right there. It was crushing," he said. "That's why this last game was so important. I wanted to beat them, not only to get to the semifinals, but I wanted to win as a makeup game from last year.

"We had problems with wrapping up late in the season, so that makes you worried going against a guy like (Chugiak running back) Greg Ghramm," he continued. "But we were just shutting him down and he wasn't getting anything. I had so much confidence in our defense because we finally woke up and started playing. I was so proud."

Going into Saturday's matchup against the Mustangs, Juneau-Douglas had been labeled as "undersized." But Le said they've heard that term all season, and they see it as an advantage.

"It's like coach Al (Fenumiai) has been telling us all season, 'These guys might look bigger than you and they're probably stronger than you, but you guys have the heart.' And that's what we've believed. Nothing's ever really stopped us," he said. "Usually the big guys on the other team are tired and slower by the fourth quarter, while we're still in shape and as fast as ever.

"I like that. They misjudge us and I like it when they do because then we turn around and kick their butts."

But now it's a different story for the Bears. This week they go on the road to Anchorage to play the undefeated West High School Eagles, the No. 1 team in Alaska 4A football.

"They have good receivers - just like we do - and they like to run the spread. No matter what team we play, we're still going to bring pressure," Le said. "And we know that puts a lot of pressure on the secondary to shut down the receivers. I get the honor of covering their best receiver, J'Vonte Buster."

Buster, the Eagles' primary senior receiver, has 38 catches for 586 yards and five touchdowns this season. But Le said the Bears' defense has the luxury of going up against two All-Conference wide receivers in practice every day: seniors Colin Gozelski and Chris Holloway.

"I like covering both of them because it helps me with two different types of receivers," he said. "If I can get good at covering and shutting both of them down, then there's really no receiver in Alaska I can't cover."

While Le has hopes of playing college football, his aspirations stretch further than just the arena of sports. A University of Alaska Scholar with a 3.94 grade-point average at Juneau-Douglas High School, Le said he hopes to enter the medical field in the future.

"I like to help people, and I've been volunteering and taking some medical classes at the high school," he said. "I'd like to think that if somebody got hurt and they needed help when there was no doctor around, I could help them."

Le said his parents left Vietnam during the war and ended up in North America, where they eventually met. Le said his grandfather, who died in the Vietnam War, wanted his son to have a better life than was possible in their home country. And Le, born and raised in Juneau, said he has always taken his parents' words to heart.

"They never got to finish high school so they've always told me and my sister to try hard in school, get a good job and live a good life," he said, "because they never had that."

And while Le said his childhood dreams of making it to the National Football League as a player most likely won't come true, he'd still love to be there in another role.

"I'd like to be a team trainer for an NFL team," he said. "I may not be on the field, but I'd be right there in the action."

For now, the action is Saturday at 1 p.m. at Anchorage Football Stadium against the state's top-ranked team. And while the high school football playoffs hold many unexpected variables, it's nice for the coaches and the rest of the Crimson Bears to know they can rely on the consistency of their defensive captain.

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