The stout defenses shut down the opposition’s running game all night long – until the St. Charles Catholic Comets needed it most in its 24-22 win over Notre Dame of Crowley in the Division III semifinals Friday in Laplace.
SCC (7-2), which had minus-8 yards rushing in the first half when taking sacks into account, fared only slightly better in the second half until the Comets took possession with 23 seconds left in the third quarter.
Notre Dame (8-2) had scored on the previous possession to trail 17-16 and had momentum on its side.
After an incomplete pass on first down, St. Charles quarterback Zack Vicknair broke free on a 21-yard keeper. A penalty on the play against Notre Dame added an additional 15 yards, moving the ball to the Pioneers’ 15-yard line as the third quarter ended.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Vicknair raced for another 27 yards. Three plays later, he scored on a 13-yard run to give SCC an eight-point edge at 24-16 following Carter Chauvin’s conversion kick.
“The o-line hit all their assignments right,” Vicknair said. They took over the game that drive. It wasn’t really me. I just found the hole that they made.
“It was a special package we put in. We knew we had to get our job done.”
“He’s just a hard-nosed sucker,” St. Charles coach Frank Monica said of Vicknair. “He doesn’t have the wiggle, which is a good thing, because he goes north and south. Nobody deserves it more than that kid. He deserves it. He works his buns off. He’s the last guy to leave the field. He is so coachable.
“We put in a package where we tried to bring in some of our bigger guys in tonight to try and get a little running game going because they were destroying our offensive line.”
Vicknair rushed for 97 yards in the game, 63 coming on the final drive.
Taking sacks into account, SCC finished with 95 yards on the ground as a team.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, was not quite done.
Like SCC until the Comets’ final drive, Notre Dame also had been unable to run the ball. So, the Pioneers did what they had done most of the game, relying on the passing of quarterback Parker Seilhan.
Except for a 2-yard by Ethan Menard, the ball was in the hands of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback for 12 of 13 plays on 67-yard drive. Seilhan either ran the ball himself on threw it as Pioneers drove down the field.
Seilhan scored on a 6-yard keeper with 58 seconds left in the game to rally Notre Dame to within two points.
Needing a two-point conversion to force overtime, Luke Bertrand was unable to haul in a pass from Seilhan, allowing St. Charles to hold on for a 24-22 triumph.
“I thought our kids kept pounding away. They (the Pioneers) kept coming and we kept saying, just play every snap and don’t back down and let’s us see how things unfold. I was tickled to death. The defense, the way it ended, that’s probably the way it should have ended. They’re the ones that should have been on the field at the end. They played their hearts out,” Monica said.
The win sends the second-seeded Comets to the title game in a rematch of last year’s championship game against Lafayette Christian. SCC lost 41-14 to Lafayette Christian in the finals a year ago.
Lafayette Christian, the No. 5 seed, returns to the title game after defeating Newman 21-7 on Friday.
The Division III championship game will be played in two weeks at Turpin Stadium on the Northwestern State University Campus in Natchitoches.
“We have a lot of unfinished business from last year. We didn’t play well last year. We have to focus up and get prepared. Other than that, I think we got it,” Vicknair said.
“We’re ready,” Comets linebacker Mandel Eugene. “This is what we prepared for all year.
“We had a hard loss last year. We will come better and hopefully we come out with a different outcome.”
Eugene and his defensive teammates completely shut down Notre Dame’s offense, but it was his play on special teams that gave the Comets a much-needed spark to open the second half.
The Pioneers were forced to punt on the opening possession of the second half with the score tied 10-10.
Eugene blocked the punt, with Joshua Tamplain recovering for SCC at the Notre Dame 27.
“I felt my team needed a momentum changer, so that’s what I did. I just knew if I got off on time, he wouldn’t be able to block me. We always work on turning our shoulders when we get off the ball and getting off on time. I just did what I was coached to do,” said Eugene, who has blocked 10 punts in his SCC career.
“They have done that to us (in the past),” Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook said of the Comets’ ability to block punts. “We worked a lot on it this week. They are all coming, and it just takes one guy to slip in there. They got the block and I really wasn’t that worried because they weren’t moving it. The one touchdown they get in the first half, the quarterback scrambles out and they make a play. They never really drove it.”
The Comets didn’t have far to go for the score. On second down from the 23, Vicknair ran up the middle, broke an initial would-be tackle, and scampered in for the score to give SCC a 17-10 lead less than three minutes into the second half.
Notre Dame also didn’t have to go far for its first touchdown of the second half.
With the Comets pinned at their own 3-yard line, a short punt gave Notre Dame the ball at the SCC 27.
After a holding penalty backed up the Pioneers on first down, Notre Dame eventually scored when Seilhan hit Luke Yuhasz on a 6-yard quick slant. The missed extra-point attempt left the Pioneers down 17-16 and set the stage for the dramatic finish.
Each team came up with big plays and both defenses came up with defensive stops to hold the opponent to field goals, leading to a 10-10 tie at halftime.
A 46-yard pass by Seilhan on Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage and facemask penalty by SCC on the play advanced the ball to the Comets’ 23.
The SCC defense held, forcing a 27-yard Lucas Simon field goal to give Notre Dame a 7-0 lead at the 8:04 mark of the first quarter.
Notre Dame’s Dominic Thibodeaux was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-2 conversion attempt at the SCC 34 on the Pioneers’ next possession, giving the ball to the Comets.
Three plays into the ensuing possession, a scrambling Vicknair hit Kendell Harris at midfield. Harris side-stepped a Notre Dame defender and raced the remaining yards for a 70-yard touchdown play and a 7-3 SCC lead at the 2:04 mark of the first quarter.
“He made a really good play,” said Vicknair, referring to Harris. “I rolled out and saw that he got open. He did is job. He got open, I gave him the ball, and he made a couple of moves on a couple of their defenders.”
“We went into the game saying he was the guy we had to throw the ball to in big situations and he really came through for us,” Monica said.
Notre Dame marched 78 yards to take a 10-7 lead, culminating the drive on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Seilhan to Yuhasz with 7:19 left in the second quarter.
Keenan Gauff returned the ensuing kickoff to the Notre Dame 33, but this time, it was the Pioneers’ defense with a stop, leading to a 35-yard Chauvin field goal for a 10-10 tie at halftime.
Veteran coaches Monica and Cooks pretty much co-wrote the book on the winning football formula of unyielding defenses, strong, time-consuming running attacks, and excellent special teams play.
The defensive side bore itself out Friday. Along with SCC’s limited offensive numbers, Notre Dame was limited to 51 yards rushing on 33 attempts.
In a departure for the Pioneers, Seilhan was 17 of 31 for 225 yards. Yuhasz hauled in 10 passes for 150 yards.
“That was what we had to do,” said Cook. “We did find a few runs to give us a few plays, but it wasn’t enough. We threw it more than we planned to, although the plan was to put it up some, but they made us throw it more than we were planning to do.”
“We forced them to play to that. We knew Coach Cook in the all the victories that he’s had; he wants to control the line of scrimmage with the running game. When we slowed that down, it forced him to go the other way,” Monica said.