OAK GROVE, La. – The end of the road for West St. John as state champions came in a north Louisiana town in the Class 1A semifinals.
Playing in conditions more conducive to a rugby scrum than football, the Rams were never able to gain their traction and fell a game short of reaching the state championship game for the second year in a row with a 30-0 loss to Oak Grove on Friday night.
“Hat’s off to Oak Grove. They are a good team and they pounded that thing at us. They gave us all we could handle in the trenches and that’s where win or lose the game. It was a slop bowl out here. The football was just hard to get traction for what we do, but they were able to score the ball and they were able to do the things they needed to do. We don’t make any excuses,” West St. John coach Brandon Walters said.
The Rams, who entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, had been road warriors all year long. Seven of West St. John’s nine regular-season games were on the road and the Rams traveled two north Louisiana in back-to-back weeks, first taking a dramatic, come-from-behind 24-23 win in the quarterfinals over Logansport before falling to Oak Grove on Friday.
The Rams might have enjoyed playing on the road in a literal fashion – at least the traction would have been better suited for their style of play.
The Oak Grove field was a near quagmire even before the game began. The unbeaten and top-seeded Tigers defeated Oberlin 14-8 a week earlier in very similar conditions. The field never recovered from the previous week and rain a day prior to the semifinals added to the sloppy mess.
Having played in similar conditions a week earlier played in the favor of the Tigers, according to Oak Grove coach Ryan Gregory.
“We played a game just like this last week. We thought it kind of benefitted us. We were able to limit the turnovers. I don’t think we had one the whole night and I think that was the difference,” said Gregory.
The Tigers also benefitted from their style of offense. Using a tight formation with only one receiver wide, the fullback lined up right behind the quarterback and the tailback 10 yards deep in the backfield, Oak Grove simply ran right at the Rams.
The best mudder of all proved to be Oak Grove fullback Wyatt Rawls, who rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the slop.
“That’s what he does. That’s what we’re made for,” Gregory said.
Such was not the case for the Rams.
The non-existent footing took away the Rams’ best asset – their team speed. Kylan Duhe, who had been one of the most productive running backs in the state, could not gain yardage inside nor able to turn the corner because of the poor traction.
“Their linebackers were just sitting in a hole and it was hard to make a move due to the field,” said Duhe.
“We are a speedy team and they take slow steps and pound it. It works for what they do. It was perfectly set up for them in these conditions and this type of footing,” Walters said.
Meanwhile, what little success the Rams had moving the football came through the air.
“We did have some success throwing the ball but it was because the rain wasn’t coming down. No rain coming down, we could spin it how we wanted to. It was just bad traction and bad footing when we tried to do any quick things,” said Walters.
“They stopped the run. The ball was a little muddy but we tried to do it and did what we could,” West St. John quarterback D’Andre Guadia said.
After Oak Grove used up most of the first quarter on the game’s opening drive to take an early 8-0 lead, the Rams defense held the Tiger in check until the closing seconds of the first half.
The Tigers were at the West St. John 31-yard line with only seven seconds remaining before halftime. Oak Grove inserted Braden Sullivan into the game at quarterback. Attempting only the second pass attempt of the half for the Tigers, Sullivan heaved the ball into the end zone to Otis Moore for a touchdown to extend Oak Grove’s lead to 16-0 at the half.
West St. John punter Savon Bridges, who helped the Rams avoid disaster in the first half when a punt snap went over his head but he was able to retrieve it and get a short kick off, was not so fortunate in the third quarter.
Forced to punt from deep in his own territory, a slick ball slipped through the hands of Bridges, with the Tigers taking over at the West St. John 3-yard line.
Rawls scored one play later to make it 24-0 with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
The fullback added a 7-yard touchdown with 2:47 left in the game to account for the final margin.
Oak Grove had taken an 8-0 lead by marching 63 yards in 17 plays and using up 7:19 seconds. Rawls, Moore and quarterback Kameron Holloway all took their turns running the ball, with Rawls get the bulk of the carriers.
Holloway capped the drive by running wide to his right from 6 yards out and an 8-0 lead.
The loss ended the Rams’ reign as state champions.
“This is not the end of our story,” said Walters. “Going down in the semis is not a horrible thing – it’s just a horrible thing at West St. John. Our expectations are through the roof and that’s not a bad thing. The standards are pretty high here.”
The playing conditions, however, made the loss tough to accept for the Rams.
“It was a little muddy. We never faced it before but we thought we were prepared but we weren’t as prepared as we thought,” said Gaudia.
“We were supposed to win this game. It was against the odds, the (poor) field, it was a pretty good season but this game was kind of hard,” Duhe said.