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Coaches now understand full meaning of SJH-Lutcher rivalry

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  • Feature Story
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  • By:
  • George Becnel
  • Posted:
  • September 07, 2017 - 6:42am

File photosSt. James will be at home Friday night as the Wildcats attempt to beat the Lutcher Bulldogs for the first time since the rivalry resumed in 2015.

Not everyone understands the magnitude of the Lutcher-St. James football rivalry.

It took Robert Valdez having to coach in the game last year to truly see the light.

“I’ve lived in Gramercy for a long time now since all those years I was at West St. John. I did not know the magnitude of what it was like last year,” said Valdez, who was in his first season as Wildcats coach a year ago. “It’s like the Jazz Fest. There are people and tents all over the place.”

One thing Valdez learned about the rivalry game, which will be played Friday in Vacherie, is that not only do the fans need to arrive early.

“We got to the stadium about 4:30, which is the earliest I’ve ever been to a stadium for a game,” Valdez recalled of the 2016 game. “At 5:15, the stadium was full. It was so humid and so many people there, it was almost like smothering you a little bit.

“You have to catch your bearings and your composure – and I’m talking about me. I don’t know what the heck the kids are going through.”

One person who has a unique perspective on the game is Dwain Jenkins. Jenkins grew up with the rivalry as a young fan, Bulldogs player and as a coach. He started out as an assistant at Lutcher and served as head coach at St. James before returning to his alma mater last year as head coach.

“Growing up, it was something you always heard about and you always looked forward to playing and being a part of that game and the atmosphere around it,” said Jenkins. “I got to coach in it very briefly. When I first started coaching, we still played. I think it was 2003 and 2004 and then it disappeared. Most of my coaching career, we didn’t play. The next time we played again, I was on the other side of it. I just think it was great for the communities to get the game back on again.”

The series resumed in 2015 with the schools district rivals. The season ended with Lutcher defeating St. James in the Class 3A state championship. Lutcher has won all three games since the series has resumed.

For Jenkins, the resumption of the series was not quite the rivalry of old.

“I think the first couple of times we played it was kind of different just because these kids had never played in it before. Those kids that played had never been a part of it,” Jenkins explained.

Also, today’s players - and even the St. James Parish school system – are different from when Jenkins was growing up in Lutcher.

“It’s also a different aspect with the kids from St. James because the way the world is connected with social media and the way our school system was set up, these kids take class together and knew each other. It was probably the first time some of those kids had to pull against who might have been their best friend when we played each other in 2015. I think that was a different aspect. After playing in the state championship game and me changing (schools) I guess it’s kind of given back that some of that meaning that it used to have before. I know with Lutcher winning the last three matchups and St. James feeling like this is a pretty good football team I know that they are looking forward to this Friday more than most,” Jenkins said.

The first meeting for the rivals in 10 years during the 2015 regular season was surreal for Jenkins, the Bulldog turned Wildcat at the time.

“I remember some St. James-Lutcher games when I played and I was in school and coached in but none of them matched the environment of the first game we played in 2015 was played under. I don’t know if there’s been any high school game in the state of Louisiana that was in that type of environment with the number of people there and the tailgating and all the events that led up to it,” said Jenkins.

The game, and the events that led to it, can by trying for the coach involved with hosting the team.

“Coaching in the game, once it got started, all that other stuff went away, but it was all the preparation before to get that game on the field and get everybody there safely and handle the crowd,” Jenkins said. “From an administrative standpoint, I think it took a toll on me as a coach at that time.

“That’s one of the things I joked with Coach Valdez about is I’m glad someone else is getting to plan this game for the first time since it’s been back. I had it the first time it was at St. James and I turned around and I was here to plan to host it here at Lutcher. So, I’m glad someone else gets to share what it takes to plan this game from and administrative standpoint.”

Valdez is getting a taste of that this week.

“We have a checklist of things and this year we are hosting,” said Valdez. “On top of coaching the game and playing the game, there are so many meetings and checkpoints and credentials and getting all these things out the way. It feels like a college game. It feels like a bowl game or something.

“I lot of people don’t totally understand how special this is. If I’m somewhere I will treat myself (to witnessing the game) but you better get here early. From what I hear, they start tailgating Thursday night. It’s madness.”

The 2016 game put Jenkins back on the Lutcher sideline for the rivalry.

“Last year’s game was special for me just because of the number of kids,” Jenkins said. “There’s not too many times that anybody gets in that situation where, literally, all the kids on field, you coached.”

“I was just as proud of the way their kids competed and played hard and just as proud of them for the success they had last year and the way they were able to continue building on the things we had done three years prior to it. At times, I just couldn’t wait for the game to be over because I wanted to hug (St. James quarterback) Demarcus Williams and tell him how great of a job he had done to that point in the season and how great of a job he did last year on Friday nights. I’m looking forward to another good game and another chapter in the tradition and storied history of Lutcher and St. James. After Friday night, I go back to hoping they do everything they can to get that next state championship at St. James.”

Now that he is a veteran of the rivalry, Valdez has some advice for any area travelers.

“Don’t come through Highway 20 if you don’t need to on Friday. You better go Spur 70 and go all the way to Boutte on Highway 90. Unless you need to come through Highway 20 or Highway 3127 in Vacherie, you may not want to come that way because by lunchtime it will look like Jazz Fest again. There will be all kind of madness,” the St. James coach 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.