It had all the earmarks of another patented St. James comeback.
Just like the season opener against West St. John in which St. James rallied from a 33-15 deficit with less than five minutes remaining to post a 36-33 win with a frantic comeback, the Wildcats fought back from a late deficit against St. Amant on Friday night in Vacherie.
This time, the rally would ultimately come up a bit short in a 41-27 loss to unbeaten Class 5A Gators.
When St. Amant running back Cade Nelson scored on a 1-yard run two plays into the fourth quarter, things seemed quite dire for the Wildcats as they trailed 35-13. Nelson rushed for 130 yards and four touchdowns in the game.
After an interception by Tyler Steib gave St. James (4-1) the ball at the St. Amant 45, the Wildcats took quick advantage, scoring on a 1-yard run by Kailin Johnson to trail 35-21 with 6:53 left in the game.
Setting up the score was a 28-yard run by Mississippi State commitment Shawn Preston out of the wildcat formation.
“I guess since we’re the Wildcats we can’t call it the ‘wildcat.’ We worked on that this week. Demarcus (Williams) is hurt and didn’t play. I’m real impressed with the way Shamar (Smith) came in as a sophomore and played against a great ball club. We knew he would make some mistakes but Shawn came in at the right time and gave us a real big burst. He’s a senior. He wants to make plays and we will use him down the stretch,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said.
Williams, the Wildcats’ quarterback, missed the game with an ankle and knee injury, so Smith, a receiver and the team’s backup signal caller, got the start.
Gators quarterback Halen Miller, who was 14 of 21 passing for 227 yards, tossed another interception, this one to De’Jon Landry, to give the ball back to St. James at the Wildcat 47-yard line with 5:54 left in the game.
A holding call and a personal foul penalty on the St. James bench left the Wildcats with a first-and-35 situation. Preston got most of the yards back on a 26-yard reception. After a 25-yard scramble by Smith, the young quarterback tossed a 7-yard touchdown strike to Preston to make it 35-27 with 4:19 left in the game. Smith finished 11 of 31 passing for 255 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also added 78 yards rushing.
“At that point, you could have put me on the line. I want to help my team win. Wherever Coach (Valdez) wanted me, that’s where I was going,” Preston said of playing on offense down the stretch.
“They kind of had our defense off-balance all night,” St. Amant coach David Oliver said of Smith being at quarterback and Preston playing on offense. “That wasn’t something we had prepared for. I guess their quarterback must of got hurt, unbeknownst to us. We saw double slot and empty (backfield) and they had an athlete back there running. I was pleased with how we adjusted and hung in there without any preparation.”
The St. James defense forced a punt with less than three minutes left in the game. The hopes of another comeback faded one play later when Darius Smith intercepted Smith’s third errant throw of the night and returned the ball to the Wildcat 11-yard line.
Nelson scored from 5 yards out three plays later to seal the Wildcats’ fate at 41-27 with 1:38 left in the game.
The Wildcats walked off the field with their first loss of the season and the respect of the opposing coach.
“We feel like we have a pretty solid club. That says a lot about St. James. Shawn Preston stood out, Chase Davis, and Jason Dumas is one of the better players I’ve seen since Sully Laiche was at Lutcher when you talk about River Parish players. He’s disruptive like that,” Oliver said.
Valdez was impressed with his club as well.
“One of our fans said we are built for this. One thing I’m so proud of my guys is that regardless of the score, we keep fighting, keep plugging, playing hard and playing with a lot of effort,” the St. James coach said.
The only score in the first quarter was a 3-yard run by Nelson.
St. Amant (5-0) added a 2-yard run by Miller and a pair of Hector Rodriguez field goals in the second quarter while the Wildcats’ only points came on a 4-yard touchdown toss from Smith to Johnson as St. James trailed 21-7 at halftime.
St. James ended up with 119 yards of total offense in the opening two quarters, 86 of which came on the Wildcats’ final two drives of the half.
“In the beginning, I don’t think we were in sync,” Valdez said.
A fumble recovery by Steib at the Wildcats’ 22-yard line halted an early St. Amant drive in the third quarter. Four plays later, Smith found a wide-open Sean Lebeouf on a 56-yard pass to make the score 21-13 at the 6:25 mark of the third quarter.
Alec Mahler, the Wildcats’ eighth-grade kicker seemed to attempt an on-side kick, with the Gators recovering at their own 44-yard line.
“We caught them playing their ‘hands team’ and what we wanted to do was a sky kick. He (Mahler) got a little bit high on the ball and got a big hop. You want to kick the meat of the ball and get it up a little bit. We were a little bit off on the kick and they got good field position,” Valdez explained.
“We thought it might be coming. I thought it might be a mis-hit,” said Oliver.
Three plays later, Nelson ran up the middle for a 48-yard touchdown to give St. Amant a 28-13 lead at the five-minute mark of the third quarter to set the stage for the frantic finish.
“That’s a good 5A ball club that is undefeated and battle tested. We will learn from this. We start district next week and we will keep plugging,” Valdez said.