NEW ORLEANS – West St. John may have failed to come away with a state championship Friday afternoon in the Class 1A title game of the Superdome Classic, but the young Rams served notice they will be a teamed to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
“I think it means we are on the right track. We are doing some good at West St. John and our kids who exemplify our attitude and work ethic. We have some young guys coming back next year and I’m very excited for what we have in the future,” Rams coach Robert Valdez said of his team’s 23-7 loss to Ouachita Christian.
Featuring only 10 seniors, the Rams showed early jitters. In the early portion of the game, West St. John had trouble covering receivers, in pass protection and was missing tackles.
“When you get to the championship game, you will have some jitters. It’s expected for every ball club,” Valdez said. “I think we were a little bit nervous at the beginning and made some uncharacteristic mistakes but I think we kept playing and fighting. You can’t make those type of mistakes against a good team like that. Those guys went wire-to-wire No. 1.”
Held without a first down and only 32 yards of total offense, the Rams seemed in need of just one positive play to get a bit of moment. That moment appeared to come late in the first half.
Ouachita Christian was leading 17-0 and seeking more points in the closing seconds of the first half when Demond Pierce intercepted Braden Bristo and raced 26 yards to the Eagles’ 32 with 28 seconds remaining before halftime.
“It was a poor decision on my part. I get over-eager sometimes. I feel like we can score at any time,” Ouachita Christian coach Steven Fitzhugh said. “I’m aggressive and I will call aggressive but sometimes it’s better to use wisdom than aggression. That certainly would have been one of those thoughts to take that 17 point lead than trying to make something happen. We only had one timeout as it was. You certainly don’t want to give them momentum going into half, and on top of that, knowing that they will get the football back.”
Three plays following the interception, West St. John quarterback Austin Howard scrambled to gain extra time before hitting Lawrence Williams on a 28-yard touchdown strike with eight seconds left in the first half to pull the Rams to within 17-7.
“I was just trying to buy time,” said Howard, who was named his team’s Most Valuable Player with a 144 yard passing performance on 9 of 22 passing. “Coach (Valdez) told me on the sideline keep my feet, keep my base. I thought of throwing it away or getting out of bounds but I found Lawrence Williams in the back of the end zone and was wide open.”
“It gave us a lot of momentum and energy. We just needed to something good to happen,” Valdez said of the late first-half touchdown.
The Rams, who finished the season 12-3, got the ball to open the second half and although they didn’t score, they did pin Ouachita Christian back at the Eagles’ 12-yard line.
West St. John forced an exchange of punts, with the Eagles ultimately taking possession at their own 49. Five plays later, Colby Webb rambled 32 yards, carrying a host of Rams players with him for a touchdown to make the score 23-7 with 3:53 left in the third quarter. Webb finished with a game-high 60 yards rushing.
“I really didn’t now I was dragging five people. I remember there were two blockers in front of me and I was trying to read their blocks,” Webb said. “I just cut back a little bit and guys were slacking off of me, it felt like, and I saw the goal line and I decided I had to get in.”
The Rams missed on a couple of scoring opportunities down the stretch.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Rams had first-and-goal at the Ouachita Christian 3-yard line but failed to score. A touchdown and a two-point conversion at that point could have gotten West St. John to within eight points.
“The old adage is defense wins championships. That’s what solidified things for us.” Fitzhugh said of his team’s goal-line stand.
Later in the game, Jairus Moll was unable to be one final defender on a punt return and was brought down at the Eagles’ 21
“I had one man to make miss and I came up short,” Moll said.
Again, the Rams were unable to take advantage of the favorable field position.
The Eagles’ defense was stellar throughout, holding the normally-potent West St. John running game to minus-13 yards when sacks were factored in. Running back Kylum Favorite was never able to get going, rushing for 17 yards on 13 attempts. WSJ’s longest running play was a 12-yard scramble by Howard, who was dropped for 53 yards in losses.
The disparity in championship game experience between the two teams was apparent from the start as Ouachita Christian, which concluded a perfect 15-0 season, scored on its first three possessions.
A 34-yard kickoff return by Josh Greer and a 35-yard pass from Bristo to Bruce Gillikin helped to set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Mark Laird 2:30 in the game.
The Rams were dropped for losses on their first three plays of West St. John’s opening drive, forcing WSJ to punt from its own 7-yard line. Ouachita Christian needed only four plays to take advantage when Bristo scored on a 5-yard run to make it 14-0 with 6:40 still remaining in the first quarter.
A 26-yard Luke Albritton field goal made with 39 seconds left in the first quarter put the Rams in a 17-0 deficit they were never able to recover from.
The quick start for the Eagles was attributable, in large part, to Ouachita Christian’s championship game experience, according to Fitzhugh.
“Our guys, they knew what it was like and this was a ball game we were not in awe so much of the big atmosphere of the Dome and we more focused on playing our football game,” Fitzhugh said.
It’s a lesson the Rams already seemed to be adhering.
“We said early in the year when we went to camp that our goal was to become state champions. We had an opportunity today and we ran across a very, very good football team, a very talented, well-coached team. We came up a little short but that doesn’t mean we don’t how to get back,” Valdez said.