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Tenth-seeded Tigers now one win away from claiming state title

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  • George Becnel
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  • December 06, 2017 - 8:57pm

After winning it all at East Jefferson in 2013, Hahnville Tigers coach Nick Saltaformaggio joins a select few to lead two different teams to state championship games.

Hahnville trailed Acadiana by 14 points on four occasions in the Tigers’ Class 5A semifinal road game last week.

The third such occasion came with Hahnville trailing 21-7 to start the second half and the Tigers perhaps in need of a little divine intervention – and the special talents of Anthony “Pooka” Williams

“This is how I know there is a God in Heaven,” Hahnville coach Nick Saltaformaggio recalled in almost sermon-like fashion. “The (Acadiana) kicker kicks every ball in the end zone. He opens up the second half and drives it deep. Pooka literally catches it with his heels on the goal line. The minute he stepped forward and the ref never waived his arm (for a touchback), I looked at our return. It was across middle wedge. Our right guard and tackle crossed and kicked their No. 4 and No. 3 defender (in the coverage alignment). Our left guard and left tackle kicked their No. 3 and No. 4 defender. Their 5s hit our wedge – and it parted

“It was just Pooka and the kicker. I will take bet anywhere. I’ll take that bet in the SEC – Pooka and a SEC kicker, I’m taking that bet. Sure enough, it was a touchdown – and it got us going.”

Hahnville allowed Acadiana to score on the ensuing drive to increase the Tigers’ deficit to 14 points again, this time at 35-21. The Tigers’ special teams did it one more time as Michael Gray returned the next kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown to narrow the gap to seven points.

The Tigers went on to force overtime and after Acadiana scored on its opening possession, Hahnville followed suit. Instead of a game-tying extra point, Saltaformaggio opted for a two-point conversion attempt and the win.

It came as no surprise when Hahnville quarterback Jha’Quan Jackson handed the ball to Williams, who had rushed for more than 200 yards in the game to top 1,000 for the postseason. If not surprise, there sure was suspense – and time for another Saltaformaggio revelation.

“Our formation was set the wrong way,” the Hahnville coach said. “We set our strength to their (the Wreckin’ Rams’) bench. We wanted to set our strength to our bench. Well, when they set the strength to their bench, they aligned to our strength so Jha’Quan turns around and tells Pooka, ‘they set their strength to our strength, they’ve got this defended.’ Pooka looks at him and says, ‘I don’t care. I’m getting ready to cut it back on these dudes.’

“That’s exactly what happened. We ran the toss and we missed a block. Two kids came free. He (Williams) pivoted 180 (degrees) and he actually was looking to bounce it outside, he put his foot on the ground and he scored.”

While Saltaformaggio may have looked to divine intervention earlier, he was more mathematician on the two-point conversion.

“Most people have trouble defending (Williams) on a 120 by 53 1/3 (length and width of field in yards). I’ll take the chances with them having to defend three yards. It was just the right call at the right time and it worked out for us,” Saltaformaggio said.

The 43-42 overtime triumph sends Saltaformaggio and his Tigers to the Class 5A state championship game where Hahnville will take on Zachary at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Zachary, 12-2 and the No. 4 seed, has known good fortune of its own. Saturday’s game will be the Broncos’ second trip to the finals in three years after having won the state title in 2015.

Other than a bit of good fortune, there are other similarities between the two teams entering the state championship tilt.

“From a momentum standpoint, they are very similar to us. They started the year out 2-2, just like we did. They had losses to two very good football teams in Catholic and U-High,” Saltaformaggio pointed out.

The Tigers, 12-2 and the No. 10 seed, also are quite familiar with Zachary’s style of play. Like most teams Hahnville has faced this year, the Broncos run a spread offense.

“What we do defensively is better suited for spread football teams, so we feel good about that. But we know we have to block them,” said Saltaformaggio, whose defense will counter with a 3-3 Stack alignment.

One of the players the Hahnville defenders will have to contend with is Zachary quarterback Keilon Brown.

“He’s a tall kid with a big arm,” Saltaformaggio said. “He started last year as a freshman. He’s not a sophomore anymore; we’re in Week 15. He’s played a lot of football now. He’s similar to Jha’Quan in that he can make plays with his feet but he also can throw the ball with pretty good accuracy. He has a pretty good understanding of the passing game. We will have to defend his feet as well as his arm.”

One of Brown’s favorite targets is Chandler Whitfield.

“They are long on the outside but their perimeter receivers are their vertical guys. They really want to do is get the ball to Whitfield in space and let him make some plays with his feet,” said Saltaformaggio.

The main running threat for Zachary is 5-foot-7 Darweshi Sanders.

“Their offensive line, like our offensive line, is really, really big. He kind of finds those creases fairly well. Their big run play is inside zone and they run counter. They run a little power flow with the quarterback. They have a similar running game to ours,” Saltaformaggio said.

The Broncos are based out of a 4-3 alignment defensively.

“They have some big, stout linebackers but they are more downhill plug kind of guys not open-field tackle guys. I think if we can get the ball on the perimeter a little bit, we will be OK. Again, we know we will have to block the point of attack. If we can do that and we can get ‘7’ in the open field, I like our chances,” said Saltaformaggio.

The Broncos feature a top defender on all three levels of the defense. Ke’Shawn Sullivan is the key cog along the defensive front, while Wes Brady leads the linebacker corps and Rodaren Alexander is a force in the secondary.

Zachary’s defense is coming off an outing in which it held West Monroe’s Slade Bolden, an Alabama Crimson Tide commitment, to 61 yards rushing on 18 carries in the Broncos’ 29-27 semifinal win over the top-seeded Rebels.

It’s no secret Hahnville will hand the ball to Williams and that fact may well play to the Tigers’ advantage.

“It almost kind of beneficial to us because we know what people will do,” Saltaformaggio said. “We know people will crowd the line of scrimmage. We know they will try to stop Anthony. We know, the unsung part of our football team, has been our offensive line. They’ve had to deal with this all year long and have answered the bell every single time.”

The final bell rings Saturday.

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.