NEW ORLEANS – With the “next” state championship 40 years in the making, it didn’t matter much that St. James spotted Jennings a quick 7-0 lead.
The Wildcat faithful took a momentary, collective deep breath after the score. But an equally quick touchdown on a 1-yard run by quarterback Shamar Smith to tie the game and a 45-yard field goal by Alec Mahler put SJH on top and gave the Wildcats all the momentum they would need for a 51-14 win over Jennings in the Class 3A state championship game Friday in the Superdome.
The state title, the fifth in school history, culminated an undefeated season at 15-0. St. James’ last state title team in 1979 also finished as an undefeated champion.
“For us and for this community, because there is so much of a love affair with football and the fanfare that we have is amazing that it took so long. We’ve had some great coaches here – Coach (Rick) Gaille did a great job here and Coach (Dwain) Jenkins did a great job here – I’m just so blessed to be in this position to be able to do some special things,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said.
Mahler’s go-ahead field goal came after a blocked punt by St. James’ Keshawn Coleman and epitomized a season in which a big-play special teams and rugged defense set up scores for an opportunistic Wildcat offense.
“The blocked punt put us in advantageous field position. When you flip the field and give us a short field, it really opens up some things for us. The blocked kick really it was, ‘here we go.’ We wanted to score fast to put them in a situation where they would have to be uncomfortable with what they do offensively,” Valdez said.
Once the Wildcats seized the momentum, it was all St. James the rest of the way.
The opening score by Jennings came when a short Bulldogs kick to start the game fell in no-man’s land and was recovered by Jennings at the St. James 14 and set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Jalen Lewis.
“We have been spotting people some points early and then we wake up and they get our attention a little bit. We had a little mishap on the return on the kickoff return and it was like, ‘OK, these guys are serious and playing for real.’ It heightened our awareness and we locked in and focused a little bit more. I just feel like the more we play, the better we get,” said Valdez.
St. James stretched its lead to 17-7 on a 48-yard run by Smith.
In an attempt to get back in the game, Jennings, which entered the game as a Cinderella team as a No. 23 seed following a 5-5 regular season, attempted to convert on fourth-and-2 from the SJH 8-yard line midway in the second quarter.
St. James defender DeAndre Keller dropped Jennings running back Trevor Etienne for a 5-yard loss.
“We kind of felt that when they went for it on fourth down, they were reaching a little bit because they felt we were gaining momentum,” Valdez said.
Five plays into St. James’ ensuing possession, Smith hit Daniel Jupiter over the middle at the 30-yard line and broke free on an 82-yard touchdown pass that extended the Wildcats’ lead to 24-7.
“In my pre-snap read, I saw the safety was playing over. I knew I had to make the catch and make the play,” said Jupiter.
Asked if he knew he was going to score, Jupiter’s response was, ‘every play, I’m thinking touchdown.”
“I think the pass to Daniel and we caught them in that open-two field look, I think at that point in time, it put them in a bind because they were giving up the middle of the field. Their linebacker was aggressive and stingy to stop the run game and the safeties were trying to help over the top with the outside receivers, we were able take that play and it put them in a bind because, now, what do you do? I think that really swung the game in our favor,” said Valdez.
Another big defensive play by St. James, this one an interception by Joel Cooper, eventually set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Smith to balloon the Wildcats’ lead to 31-7 with 1:17 seconds left in the first half.
The start of the second half saw Jennings fumble the ball away at its own 23 with St. James defensive lineman Chase Geason recovering at the Bulldogs’ 8-yard line.
The well-schooled Wildcat defense seemed to have Jennings’ veer offense solved from the start.
“In practice, our coaches told us different keys for what they do for different runs and we just knew what to do every play,” said Geason.
Two plays later, Sean Lebeouf scored from a yard out and St. James led 38-7.
Lebeouf, who finished with 110 yards rushing, gave praise to his offensive line.
“I’ve got to give it to my ‘phat’ guys. I try to feed them every time we have big games,” Lebeouf said at the postgame press conference.
Valdez explained that ‘phat’ stands for ‘Pretty Hot and Temping.’
“I try to feed them chicken sandwiches from Popeyes,” joked Lebeouf.
“They’re owed,” Valdez chimed in.
Jennings and St. James traded big plays later in the third quarter.
Etienne, the younger brother of Clemson running back, Travis Etienne, scored on a 56 yard run. Shazz Preston, the younger brother of Mississippi State’s Shawn Preston, countered with a 63-yard touchdown reception to make the score 45-14.
The final score came when Smith, named the game’s Outstanding Player, was on the receiving end of a 20-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Marquez Bergeron with 5:13 left in the game for the 51-14 final.
Smith ended his St. James playing career in typical all-round fashion. He rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 229 yards and two scores, while adding a 20-yard touchdown reception.
The win, Valdez said, said meaning well beyond the football field at St. James.
“This is so special,” the St. James coach said. “Our community is a blue-collar community. It’s get up every day, go to work, come back home, love hard, work hard. That’s kind of what these kids have done. We put a lot of demands on them athletically and academically. We have Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our community. They really came out and energized us all year. Anything you have anything that deals with the St. James Wildcats, our community is there. This is for us, but it’s for them, too, and the hard work and dedication that we put in.”