CLINTON – In each of the past 17 years, the Acadiana area has had at least one high school football team to qualify for the state finals.
Make it 18.
The Notre Dame Pioneers extended the area’s streak on Friday after they defeated the East Feliciana Tigers 16-14 in the Class 4A semifinals in Clinton.
“It feels great to be going back to the state finals,” Pioneers head coach Lewis Cook said. “We kind of felt that monkey on our backs about keeping the streak in the finals going for our area. I’m glad we were able to keep it going.”
For the Pios, who improved to 12-1on the year, it marks the first time since 2009 that they will play in the state finals which will give their seniors an opportunity to end their high school careers the way it began – with a title.
“It is such an awesome feeling to be going back to the dome,” Pios quarterback Brad Stoma said. “Really it is a dream come true not only for me, but for my teammates to have a chance to play for the state championship once again.”
Arguably the biggest reason why the Pios have the opportunity to play one more game in the Mercedes Superdome next Saturday at 4 p.m. against Parkview Baptist is because of the performance turned in by their defense.
Facing one of the most dynamic football players in the state in East Feliciana’s Kendell Beckwith, the Pios’ defense rose to the occasion and held the Tigers’ high-powered offense to 14 points. Beckwith finished the game with 76 yards on 14 carries, while completing 13-of-26 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m really ecstatic about the way our defense went out and played,” Pios defensive coordinator Jimmy McCleary said. “To go up against the kind of fire power that East Feliciana has on offense and hold them to 14 points is unbelievable. If you would have told me before the game that we were going to hold East Feliciana with those athletes to only 14 points I would have laughed at you.”
The Pios’ defense held East Feliciana to 186 yards of total offense (104 passing, 82 rushing), 4-of-12 on third downs and forced three turnovers (two fumbles, one interception) en route to propelling Notre Dame to victory.
“I felt coming in that our defense would be able to hold up against their offense,” Cook said. “Every time we needed a stop, our defense came up with it. What an effort by them. To hold those guys to 14 points is outstanding. What can I say? To hold those stallions at East Feliciana to 14 points is incredible.”
While the defense was dominating the Tigers’ offense, the Pios’ offense came up with the big plays when needed to help Notre Dame muster up enough plays to secure the win.
Arguably the biggest play of the game for the Pios’ offense came midway in the fourth quarter when Notre Dame was facing a second down and 20 yards to go from their own 45 yard line leading 13-6. Stoma dropped back to pass and threw it out to his “good friend” Nick Benoit who made a great catch down the right sidelines for 48 yards and a first down at the Tigers’ seven-yard line. Benoit finished the game with 88 yards and one touchdown on two carries.
Four plays later, Dustin Reiners drilled a 20-yard field goal to extend the Pios’ lead to 16-6 with 5:01 remaining in the game.
“In the third quarter, we couldn’t make a first down and neither could they,” Cook said. “But on that second down play, Brad stepped up and made a great throw to Nick, who then made a heckuva catch. Then you can’t forget the big kick by Dustin when he made that field goal.”
After benefiting from a great kick return on the ensuing kickoff that gave East Feliciana the ball at the Pios’ 27-yard line, the Tigers cut the deficit to 16-12 on a four-yard touchdown pass from Beckwith to Thocorrece Hawkins on fourth down and two from the four-yard line. Beckwith ran in untouched for the two-point conversion to pull within two at 16-14 with 2:28 left in the game.
East Feliciana went for the onside kick, but the ball never bounced off the ground. Although the Tigers hit a Pios player as soon as the ball arrived after traveling 10 yards, East Feliciana wasn’t awarded the recovery of the football because they were called for return interference.
“I wasn’t surprised at all at how close this game was,” Cook said. “I think we forget how quick these types of teams are.”
Stoma finished the game having completed 7-of-16 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown, while fullback Austin Thibodeaux rushed for 81 yards on 16 carries and running back Luke Broussard contributed with 50 yards on 11 carries. John Michael Besse rushed for 43 yards and one touchdown on eight carries.
“We had too many missed opportunities,” Tigers head coach Cedric Anderson said. “We knew they were a good team coming in and every time we made a mistake, they made us pay for it. We didn’t make the plays we had to make to win and advance.”
Follow assistant sports editor Eric Narcisse on Twitter @tdanarcisse.