Many and Kinder are both one win away from the ultimate goal.
Sometime shortly after 7 p.m. Friday, one of the two teams will hoist the Class 2A championship trophy.
One of these teams was supposed to get to this point. The other, put simply, wasn’t.
Many made a surprising run to the 2A quarterfinals last season and brought back a host of talent on both sides of the ball. With the split between select and non-select schools weeding out some of the upper echelon talent that has prevented public schools from winning the 2A title in recent years, the Tigers entered the season as arguably the prohibitive favorite in Class 2A.
Coach Jess Curtis embraced the expectations, putting up a picture of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the school’s weight room and openly talking to his players about setting lofty goals and working to reach them.
“All the hard work has got to pay off,” junior defensive end Pepi Hamilton said.
The Tigers mostly breezed through the regular season, minus a 23-20 hiccup against Pickering to start District 3-2A play. They finished 9-1 and earned the top seed for the 2A playoffs, where they romped through Delcambre and Springfield by matching 47-7 scores in the first two rounds.
It got a little tougher in the quarterfinals, but the Tigers (13-1) defeated Oak Grove 34-20, and then they escaped Loreauville with a 27-26 victory in the semifinals to earn a berth in Friday’s championship game at 4:30 p.m.
Kinder, meanwhile, wasn’t expected to make it this deep in the playoffs, even after grabbing the No. 3 seed heading into the playoffs.
Coach Bret Fuselier took over a squad that was supposed to be rebuilding this season. The Yellow Jackets did anything but, running the table on their way to a District 4-2A title and a 9-1 regular season. They shut out Istrouma and beat up on Homer before squeaking by St. James, 21-13, in the quarterfinals.
Still, Kinder (13-1) was just supposed to be the next speed bump standing in the way of Winnfield’s rematch with Many in the Superdome. Winnfield and Many scripted a classic, 14-13 game that Many won in Week 1, and lots of observers assumed they were destined to meet again in the Dome. When Many and Winnfield drew the top two seeds and were placed on opposite sides of the bracket, that essentially confirmed the rematch talk.
Nobody told Kinder, though. Or perhaps, the Jackets heard about it plenty. They stood toe to toe with Winnfield and came out with a 28-21 home victory in the semifinals, advancing to the LHSAA Prep Classic for the first time and to their first state title game in 35 years.
Now Many and Kinder stand in each other’s way of the ultimate prize. Many has played in just one state championship game, finishing as the runner-up in 1988. Curtis was a senior tight end on that team. Kinder has won two state titles, in 1967 and 1978, but hadn’t made it to a championship game since.
Fuselier said Many “turned it to another level” after the Pickering loss — a game that Curtis said allowed his team to refocus on its championship goals. Fuselier praised junior quarterback Xavier Dias (who also doubles as a free safety, triples as a kick returner and quadruples as the Tigers’ punter) as a “special player.” The Tigers have two massive offensive tackles in juniors Garrett Thomas (6-6, 305) and Jonathan Miller (6-2, 270), not to mention beefy junior nose tackle Jamarious Newton (6-1, 315).
“There’s no doubt they deserve to be here,” Fuselier said.
Kinder, meanwhile, will bring an offense that is similar to several the Tigers have faced in the playoffs. Although it had to contend with Loreauville’s explosive spread offense last week, Kinder uses a tighter formation similar to Delcambre, Springfield and Oak Grove.
Senior Austin Pickle is the trigger-man of Kinder’s double-wing offense, while junior fullback Jordan Vickers carries most of the load and has rushed for more than 1,400 yards on the season. Curtis said both Pickle and Vickers are “great players,” and the Jackets have some solid receivers in seniors Khalil Leblanc and Kade Andrews and sophomore Welles Cooley to go along with a strong offensive line.
The Jackets have scored fewer than 21 points just once in their 10-game winning streak.
“That offense to me looks like an offense in a groove,” Curtis said.
Many, meanwhile, features a host of weapons to go along with Dias. The tailback trio of junior Kelvin Gosey and sophomores Kentrell Maxie and James Carhee has been a nightmare for opposing coaches, and Fuselier knows his team will have its hands full.
“The way you defend stuff like that is just play good technique football,” he said. “Do what you did all year. You’re here for a reason.”
Hamilton said the Tigers are ecstatic about walking onto the Superdome turf, but as Curtis has preached all week that they must remember they’re playing another football game as they have the previous 14 Fridays.
“We’ve got to do our jobs when we get on the field Friday,” Hamilton said.
“It’s gonna be different,” Curtis said. “That’s part of the deal with two new teams. But at 4:30, when we get between those white lines, it’s a football game.”