St. James may well be considered the team of destiny going into Friday night’s Class 3A state championship game in the Superdome in New Orleans.
The Wildcats have been ranked No. 1 throughout the year, earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and have been unbeaten through 14 games.
It also marks the 40th anniversary of St. James’ last state championship in 1979 – a team that went unbeaten on its way to the capturing the Class 3A crown.
“We bet the house on us,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said. “We put all the chips on the table. We stacked the schedule. We put a lot of demands on our program. We stepped up to the challenge.
“It’s not easy being preseason ranked No. 1 and maintaining that. The schedule and expectations, all those different things, to be practicing Week 15 feels great. It’s a validation. Hopefully, we can finish this and go wire to wire. This is something that we can all look back at as a special year.”
Jennings finished the regular season 5-5 to garner the No. 23 seed.
In the playoffs, the Bulldogs has had a penchant for winning close games and taking down higher seeds.
Jennings opened the playoffs with a 34-27 win over No. 10 seed Carroll. The Bulldogs’ next three wins were by one-point each with victories of 14-13 over No. 7 Church Points, 39-38 over No. 2 Sterlington, and 21-20 over fifth-seeded McDonogh 35 in last week’s semifinals.
“The one thing that is really scary about them, when you watch them play, they play with a passion – the whole team. They play with a passion and a lot of energy. When you watch them, it looks like all 11 are trying to tackle you. All 11 are rushing to the tackle,” Valdez said.
Jennings runs a veer offense, which can be very difficult to prepare for in limited practice time.
“They do different types of things with the veer. It’s what I call a ‘tight veer,’ which is a lot like an inside veer. They do regular wide veer. Their fullback, he hits it full speed,” Valdez explained.
Having played the like of Brusly and Union Parish the last two weeks, Valdez said, should help the Wildcats prepare for Jennings.
“There are a lot of similarities to it. I think Jennings runs theirs a lot faster. Brusly and Union were more powerful. These guys are quick guys,” said Valdez.
The quarterback is Bub Willridge.
“A lot of people focus just on the veer and all that. He makes the perfect reads with the veer but he had good command of his passing. He’s been hit and he gets back up. He’s very, very tough,” Valdez said.
The fullback is Jalen Lewis, with the headliner on offense being sophomore running back Trevor Etienne. He is the younger brother of Clemson’s Travis Etienne.
“He’s a special athlete. It’s a perfect offense geared toward what he needs. He has great speed. He has great vision and power. He knows what to do with the ball in his hands,” Valdez said of Etienne.
Slate Lemieux sees some action in the backfield while also playing in the secondary. Tight end Damarien Simon also is one of the team’s outside linebackers.
“They will play their best 11. Those guys have been playing the whole season,” said Valdez.
One of the Bulldogs’ top defenders is end Kye Cary.
“He is a hell of a football player. He plays with high energy. He’s a Kamikaze-type of guy. He throws his body all over the field,” Valdez said.
Another top defender up front is junior tackle Kennan Landry, who is listed at 295 pounds.
“That’s before lunch,” quipped Valdez.
Valdez will be making his second trip to the finals as a coach. He led West St. John to the Class 1A title game in 2011.
For the Wildcats, it’s now off to the Superdome.
“I think every kid should dream of playing in the Superdome. We have that opportunity. I’m glad, that on the non-select side, we did not mess this up and get to play in the biggest arena that we have. We earned to right to punch our ticket, but be ready to fight, be ready to compete, and be ready to go out there and play for four more quarters, or as many as it takes, to get it done,” Valdez said.