The last time St. James won a state title in 1979, the Wildcats did so as an undefeated champion.
Now, 40 years later, the Wildcats have a chance to repeat the feat after defeating Union Parish 25-14 in the Class 3A semifinals Friday night in Vacherie.
“This is what it’s all about,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said as he was surrounded by Wildcat fans. “Seeing these people and seeing this community and see how excited they are about Wildcat football, this is special.”
The top-seeded Wildcats (14-0) will take on Jennings (9-5) for the state title next Friday in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Jennings, as a No. 23 seed, continued to defy the odds after a 21-20 win over McDonogh 35, the No. 6 seed.
St. James will be making its first appearance in the state championship game since 2015 when the Wildcats lost to rival Lutcher.
“We went to the finals in 2015 and lost and we have to get the ‘W’ this time. Big history – 15-0,” St. James quarterback Shamar Smith said.
Shazz Preston, who had a touchdown reception and two big catches in the fourth quarter to keep a scoring drive alive, will have a chance to capture a state title that eluded his other brother, Shawn Preston Jr., back in 2015.
“This one (a state title) is for my brother,” said Preston, who finished Friday’s game with 11 catches for 179 yards. Shazz, a sophomore, is a LSU commitment, while Shawn currently plays at Mississippi State.
Union Parish used up more than four minutes on the opening drive of the second half before scoring on an 8-yard run by JaQuaris Donald. A two-point conversion run by Treyvion Holly gave the Farmers a 14-13 lead with 7:39 left in the third quarter.
It marked the first time this season that St. James trailed in the second half of a game.
St. James would respond by scoring at the end of the quarter on a Lamar Jackson-like improvisation play from Smith, who scrambled almost 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and reversed field before launching a 24-yard touchdown pass to the back of the end zone, that was caught by Kaden Williams to give the Wildcats back the lead at 19-14.
“I was just trying to make a play. I saw the man (Williams) open and I made it. It was a good catch by him,” said Smith.
“When he starts doing that ‘Superman stuff, that’s fantastic. He’s a special athlete. We put the ball in his hands for a reason and he came through for us,” Valdez said.
St. James put the game away on a 1-yard touchdown run by Smith. Twice during the drive, the Wildcats converted on third down – both by diving catches by Preston. His sideline toe-touch catch set up Smith’s score.
“I was there. I’m there whenever the need it. When they need a big play, call on me,” said Preston.
At that point, we felt we had to score. We didn’t think they had to offense to come back from a deficit after being down a couple of scores. In that situation, we were going to go for it. We were going to put all hands on deck and go after it,” Valdez said.
A 12-yard run by Smith gave St. James 7-0 lead with 6:33 left in the opening quarter.
Union Parish quickly responded when Holly sprinted 74 yards on the first play from scrimmage following Smith’s touchdown. A missed extra-point kick allowed St. James to maintain a 7-6 edge.
Other than Holly’s one big run and the Union Parish’s score to open the second half, the Wildcats held Farmers’ offense in check.
“It was a big run. All we had to do was adjust and we had to strike harder,” St. James defensive end Savion Jones said.
Devontae Dismuke’s interception of a Smith pass halted a Wildcat drive and gave Union Parish the ball at its own 20.
St. James got the ball right back on a fumble by Union Parish quarterback Trent Ginn that was recovered by Kaleb Brown at the Farmers’ 34-yard line with 1:29 left in the half.
A 22-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Preston gave St. James a 13-6 lead at halftime.
Now, it’s off to the Superdome for the Wildcats.
“It will be a sight. The whole St. James Parish will be there, and more,” said Preston.
Jones had a message for Wildcat fans.
Be there. We’re gonna win. We’re gonna win it all,” he said.