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RA faces old-school Notre Dame in Division III semifinal encounter

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  • George Becnel
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  • November 22, 2017 - 7:43pm

File photosQuarterback Jordan Loving is one of several Riverside Academy Rebels who played against Notre Dame of Crowley in the 2015 state championship game.

No matter how many classes, divisions or playoff brackets the Louisiana High School Athletic Association may come up with, you generally can pencil in a Lewis Cook team into the semifinals.

In 33 years as a prep head coach, Cook’s teams have made 31 playoff appearances. When his Notre Dame of Crowley team hosts Riverside Academy on Friday, it will mark the 17th time one of his clubs has reached the semifinals.

“He’s a great coach and one of the good guys in this profession. I have a lot of respect for him, even if he wasn’t a good coach, he’s a good person. His teams are a great reflection of him,” Riverside coach Chris Lachney said of Cook.

What the Pioneers reflect is hard-nosed, old-school football. It’s nothing fancy but it has led to 343 wins and four state championships. Cook won one state title at Crowley High in 1989. The others came at Notre Dame in 2000, 2009 and 2015. The 2015 title came in a 13-3 triumph over Riverside.

Riverside, the defending Division III champion, enters the semifinals with a 5-4 record and is the No. 5 seed. Notre Dame is unbeaten at 10-0 and is the No. 1 seed.

Notre Dame advanced to the semifinals with a 45-0 domination of Episcopal of Baton Rouge in which the Pioneers rushed for 314 yards on 44 carries – an average of 7.1 per attempt.

“That’s what they do. They run the football and they control the clock and they play great defense. They get it done in all three phases,” said Lachney.

While Notre Dame may be good in all phases, Cook’s teams always have hung their hats on defense, and 2017 is no exception. Other than a 38-37 shootout over Kinder, the Pioneers have not allowed more than seven points in any game and have recorded three shutouts.

“They play kind of timeless defense,” Lachney said. “In nowadays football with the way offenses are more spread out and the rules are benefitting the offenses, you don’t see a whole lot of ‘zeroes’ on the board. Only one team has scored more than one touchdown against them. That’s pretty impressive. That’s old-school defense.

“They are a 4-3 and they will play two-high safeties. They do just enough different things that it keeps you honest. They don’t do a ton of different things. They might just do two different things but those two things are complementary of one another. Between those couple of different things they do, they have an answer to almost everything at their disposal. Their players are very good and very tough and that covers up a lot of x’s and o’s mistakes, but they don’t make many of those, either.”

Cameron Nelson, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior linebacker, epitomizes a Notre Dame defender, Lachney said.

“It seems like every player at Notre Dame looks the same and it doesn’t matter who it is. Whoever wears 22 now (Nelson’s jersey number) if you play them again in 10 years, he will look just like that again,” said Lachney.

Along with playing linebacker, Nelson also is the Pioneers’ punt returner.

“The last guy I knew that played linebacker and punt returner was Brian Urlacher in college,” said Lachney, referring to the former University of New Mexico star who went on to a perennial Pro Bowl career with the Chicago Bears.

Notre Dame’s top player up front is defensive tackle Alex Gardiner, said Lachney.

“He’s physical. He’s tough and very physical. He has a very high motor. He’s Notre Dame defense personified,” Lachney said.

Notre Dame’s offense is old school as well. As the win over Episcopal attests, the Pioneers like to run the football. They do so with a traditional offense featuring two backs and a tight end.

“As coaches, we get more comfortable when we see that. You’re like, ‘yeah, I know this; this is the football I grew up with.’ But you have to understand our kids are wired different. That’s weird to them,” Lachney said. “Our kids, when they see those types of formations and those personnel groupings they feel as uncomfortable as I did the first time I saw a five wide receiver formation. It’s all relative to your time and your generation, I guess.

“I guess what our staff does a really good job is kind of making everything look the same. We don’t really see a lot of differences in formations. It’s all about threats and eligible receivers. Where they align them is kind of irrelevant. If everybody has a job based on a certain player, then who cares where they line them up. That’s kind of how our defense works.”

Leading the ground game is running back Collin Kirsh and fullback Waylon Bourgeois.

Directing the offense is quarterback Garrett Bergeron.

“He’s a good distributor of the football. Two years ago when we played them, they had a good quarterback. I think this kid is probably a better passer. He’s a taller, leaner kid,” said Lachney.

The Pioneers’ best receiving threat is Gentry Borill.

“He’s a guy that even when he’s covered, he’s still open,” Lachney said of Borill. “He runs great routes and he and the quarterback have a great rapport with one another. They always seem to be on the same page.

“What makes them tough to defend is you have to deal with the run game but the fact there is a receiver like him out there; that it’s hard to leave one-on-one with your defensive backs makes it mathematically almost impossible.”

Notre Dame reached the semifinals with a strong running effort against Episcopal. In Riverside’s win over Dunham, Rebels quarterback Jordan Loving tossed six touchdown passes.

The contrasting style may be eye-catching, but the differences can be overblown, according to Lachney.

“You have to move the chains and you have to control the clock,” the Riverside coach said. “Whether you hand it to someone to get that done or you throw it to someone to get that done is kind of irrelevant. There are a lot of ball-control offenses that throw it more than they run it and there’s a lot of run-first offenses that can’t control the clock.

“I think you just have to know how to manage a game and use the personnel you have to get that done.”

Still, it leads to an intriguing matchup.

“We’re up to the challenge and we are looking forward to it. It’s semifinal football. It’s what it’s all about,” Lachney said.

George Becnel | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

George Becnel is an award-winning journalist and has been a sports writer and editor for more than 30 years.