East football coach Brandon Matich isn’t exactly known for being shy when it comes to singing the praise of his own players.
But how about this for a new one: Praising the singing.
“It was awesome,” Matich said. “He’s a beautiful singer.”
The performer Matich refers to is his own behemoth of a defensive lineman, Apu Ika. Ika sang the national anthem at Rice-Eccles Stadium before the Class 4A state championship game against Springville last year.
The stage is even bigger now for the 6-foot-3, 320-pound junior. East moved up a classification — technically two classes since Utah’s high school divisions were restructured — and the Leopards will play for the Class 6A title against Bingham on Friday.
And Ika’s role now is as the big man in the middle of the defense. Lone Peak undoubtedly was hoping to have a balanced offensive attack in last week’s state semifinal.
But the Knights’ normally reliable running game vanished early with only 1 yard on three official attempts while East brought down quarterback Brock Jones six times for 45 yards in losses. Those were the first-half totals.
Ika, who was in on a couple of sacks, had a crucial role in bottling up the middle.
“We didn’t think they could run on us,” Matich said. “We knew they’d be forced to throw and go empty [backfield], and that’s what they did.”
“Coach told us that they get all their momentum through their running game. When we shut down their running game, they didn’t have any momentum,” Ika said. “I feel our defense did a great job. That’s where we where our hang our hat. If they don’t score, they can’t win.”
Ika is third on his team in solo tackles and has bulldozed his way to the quarterback for 11.5 sacks this season.
This is actually Ika’s first year as a regular starter for the Leopards. He was part of a rotation for the defensive line last year.
“He’s a big-time, D-I guy. He’s got several offers as a junior. He had offers as a freshman,” Matich said. “I think he’s the best defensive tackle in the state of Utah. He’s a smart kid, and academically his parents make sure he’s doing his school work. He’s got a big heart.”
Ika is the youngest of five children, the biggest as well, and he can thank his older siblings for his name. His real first name is Siaki, and what he goes by these days was appropriated by the older Ika kids from a character — Abu in the 1992 movie “Aladdin”.
“It was a nickname that just kind of grew within my family — and then started getting out to everyone,” Ika said.
Apu Ika’s goal, aside from helping East beat Bingham to end his junior season, ultimately is to play college football and maybe even more beyond that.
But Matich is confident that Ika can be successful in a variety of areas.
“He’s kind of a renaissance man, a real well-rounded kid,” Matich said.
FRIDAY’S STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
at Rice-Eccles Stadium, University of Utah
Mountain Crest vs. Orem, 11 a.m.
Skyridge vs. Lehi, 6:30 p.m.
Bingham vs. East, 2:30 p.m.