The St. James Wildcats weathered the storm in more ways than one against the rival Lutcher Bulldogs in the District 9-3A opener Friday night in Vacherie.
Lighting and heavy rain caused a one-hour rain delay with St. James leading 3-0 early in the second quarter.
Lutcher quickly scored after play resumed and eventually led 13-10 at halftime.
After a 37-yard Alec Mahler field goal tied the game through three quarters, St. James turned the game over to its offensive line and the running game, spearheaded by quarterback Shamar Smith and running back Sean Lebeouf. Smith scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns as the top-ranked team in Class 3A remained unbeaten with a 34-13 victory.
“To be able to basically come from behind and be able to weather the storm and win the game and be 6-0 and 1-0 in district the second half of the season, that’s major. We are very excited about that,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said.
After Mahler’s field goal to tie the game, the Bulldogs were on the march, eventually facing fourth-and-4 from the St. James 29. A false start penalty cost Lutcher five yards but the Bulldogs still opted to try for a fourth-down conversion. Lutcher quarterback Mekhi Patterson was sacked for a 6-yard loss, giving the ball – and the momentum – to the Wildcats.
“Sometimes in games like that when they (the opponent) have more energy, you just need a couple of plays to get the mojo back and I think that big fourth down gave us some extra juice to finish down the stretch. From that point on, it was we were not going to be risky, we will just go with the percentages and the ground game and we will have to get physical,” said Valdez.
The Wildcats did exactly that. The St. James offensive line blew the Bulldogs off the ball in the fourth quarter, allowing Smith and Lebeouf to consistently get runs of five yards or more.
One of the guys opening up holes for the runners was DeAndre Keller, who was also a force on the defensive line along with Savion Jones and Chase Geason.
“Coach (Valdez) told us everything is there. All we had to do is stay low, knees, hips and ankles and fire off the ball and get 4-6 yards every play,” Keller said.
“We just went ground and pound,” said Valdez. “We just put it on our offensive line and our running backs and just told them this is the type of game we are going to have to play. We’ve been throwing the ball a lot but eventually when someone challenges you and tries to take it away, you will have to try to run.”
“They were able to use Shamar and I thought Sean Lebeouf was running pretty possessed at the end. That’s a pretty good one-two combination to have down the stretch to ground out a clock,” Lutcher coach Dwain Jenkins said.
Among those helping the veteran Keller open up holes for Smith and Lebeouf were freshmen guards Jamaul Hooker and Jace Phillips. Adam Batiste, a sophomore, spells Keller along the youthful offensive front.
“Those young boys got a chance to grow up tonight. My hat goes off to them because we haven’t had to lean on them because of our athletes but tonight we had to,” said Valdez.
The Wildcats kept the ball on the ground for all 10 plays of their next possession, this time with Smith scoring on a 1-yard sneak to make it 27-13 with 4:43 left in the game.
Lutcher’s attempt at a rally ended when Joel Cooper intercepted his second pass of the game deep in St. James territory and raced to the Bulldogs’ 25.
“If it wasn’t for D’Shawn (Jenkins) for tipping it, I wouldn’t have had the pick,” said Cooper. “A shout out to the blocking and all that.
“My legs started burning and I got tired. I have to work on my endurance and get faster.”
Cooper’s interception led to a 17-yard touchdown run by Smith with 59 seconds left in the game to account for the 34-13 final.
Although the loss dropped Lutcher to 2-4 overall, Jenkins said the Bulldogs learned something about themselves against St. James.
“One of the things we talked about this week was that this team has not yet played its best football and now they understand what it takes to play that way. We talked about it being a measuring stick. Through the rain delay and the first three quarters of this football game, we went toe-to-toe with the team that is the best in 3A right now. I think we know where we stand.”
A 32-yard Mahler field goal less than three minutes into the game gave St. James a quick 3-0 lead.
The game was stopped at the 11:04 mark of the second quarter because of lightning with Lutcher at the St. James 20.
Patterson scored on a 10-yard scramble after play resumed and a blocked extra point left Lutcher with a 6-3 lead at the 8:02 mark of the second quarter.
“We had a good drive going and you hate to go to the rain delay. It was super important for us to cash in right there because you know what will happen. We moved the ball down the field and you get to the 20-yard line and you get first-and-10 from the 20 and you get a 45-50 minute delay, you don’t know what’s going to come out of that rain delay. I thought it was big for us to get that score,” said Jenkins.
St. James regained the lead at 10-6 on a 17-yard run by Lebeouf.
Patterson scored on a 1-yard run with 48 seconds left in the second quarter to give Lutcher a 13-10 halftime lead.