Destrehan senior Jaden Harding summed up the emotional vibe of the Wildcats sideline, moments following the team’s 23-0 Class 5A state semifinal loss at Acadiana – though the pained expression on his face conveyed it first.
Harding and the Wildcats fought valiantly, but ultimately couldn’t overcome a top-seeded Rams team that ended Destrehan’s season for a second straight year. Friday night represented a rematch of the two programs that faced off in the 2019 5A championship, a classic defensive game Acadiana won 8-3.
Riding high on a 10-game winning streak, the Wildcats hoped to deliver a bit of payback – and with it, a trip to Natchitoches to compete for the 2020 state championship. But a tough Acadiana team proved a barrier too steep to climb.
“We came out here thinking we’d come out and beat them, and get our revenge from last year,” said Harding. “But it was just a different ballgame out here.”
No. 1 Acadiana (10-1) will face No. 6 seed Alexandria in the Class 5A state championship game.
Acadiana led 3-0 at halftime after a defensive slugfest of a first half, bringing to mind Destrehan’s 6-0 win over Ruston from a week prior.
Destrehan (10-2) received the ball to start the third quarter. But the Wildcats couldn’t muster a drive and were forced to punt. Acadiana took control of the game on its ensuing drive and did it on a big run by Rams quarterback Jeremiah Brown, who kept the ball and raced 52 yards down to the Destrehan 1-yard line. Tyvin Zeno punched it in for a score to make it 10-0 with 8:51 left in the third quarter.
“We couldn’t get a drive going to start the second half … they took advantage of some good field position and put points on the board,” said Destrehan head coach Marcus Scott, who concludes his first season as Wildcats’ head coach after leading his team into the semifinals. “Against a team like this, to go down two scores … it’s always tough. There were a few times we had some positive things going on and we needed to cash in.”
With a two-score lead, and on a night points and yardage came at a premium, Acadiana worked at a deliberate pace, working short runs up the middle again and again – all the while draining the clock. The Rams scored again with 27 seconds left in the third, this time Omiri Wiggins capping the drive on a 1-yard score to make it 17-0.
That put Destrehan in a bind. The Wildcats rallied on the road multiple times this season in the second half of games, but with the run all but off the table this time, Acadiana allowed the Wildcats no traction in the fourth quarter.
“They deserve a lot of credit,” said Scott. “A team that’s able to run as well as they do, and then defensively they get you in obvious passing situations and can pressure you with four … they’re defending champion for a reason.”
The Rams made it 23-0 with 5:10 left on Keven Williams’ 14-yard touchdown run to all but seal the win.
Scott said some mistakes cost the Wildcats – an early long run called back for holding represented one of a handful of costly penalties – and this was a spot his team couldn’t afford them.
He had no questions regarding his team’s heart or effort, though.
“The kids gave us everything they had all season,” said Scott. “Tonight, was no different. Obviously, it had to be over for someone. There can only be one champion and they deserved to win tonight. We have to get better … we’ll get back to work.”
Acadiana’s offense generated 22 first downs and more than 300 yards of offense, with Zeno’s 105 yards leading the way.
The Rams put the first points on the board on a Jesus Martinez 27-yard field goal that made it 3-0. Destrehan’s Dylan Gibbs made a key tackle for loss to stall the drive and force the attempt.
Destrehan began to garner some momentum on a drive midway through the quarter, pushing the ball down the field and reaching the Acadiana 30-yard line, where the Wildcats faced fourth-and-3. Acadiana swarmed Razan Keller, whose run to the right side was swallowed up to force a turnover on downs.
Acadiana took over and started to march. A Destrehan personal foul penalty moved the ball to the 50, and soon it was the Rams deep into Wildcats territory with less than a minute left in the half. Brown looked to go over the top for a potential touchdown, but with 15 seconds left Harding intercepted the ball to end the threat.
“We were in a cover-3, and my man ran a short route,” Harding said. “I saw the tight end come across the middle and Tyler (Morton) come down (to defend), so if I don’t make the play on that, it’s a touchdown. I had to come up and make the play right there and try to change the momentum of the game.”
It wouldn’t swing the game but offered a final lasting memory from a defense that provided highlight plays and takeaways all season long.
“We’re a brotherhood,” said Harding. “We all came up as freshmen playing together. It’s why we played so well. So … for all the seniors, it hurts. It hurts.”
The loss ended what was a 10-game winning streak for Destrehan, one which started following a Week One loss to St. Paul’s that – like last year following a slow start by Wildcat standards– may have led many to write the team off prematurely.
“We needed that loss, actually,” Harding said. “We needed it to get our minds right, to get us focused on our goal to come out and beat every team, to push for a championship.”