It was 12 months ago that perennial power West Monroe faced a Lafayette-based team in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association's Class 5A state championship football game.
The Rebels went against an Acadiana High team that liked nothing better than running the football, and only threw as a diversion. It worked, as the Wreckin' Rams posted a 21-14 victory and claimed the 5A state title.
Saturday night, West Monroe will face a Lafayette-based team that likes to run the football, and rarely throws. Only the names have changed.
This time, it's Carencro's Golden Bears who will face the North Louisiana Rebels in the Superdome Classic finale scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And just like last year, West Monroe will be pressed to stop the running game.
The Golden Bears (13-1) have the state’s leading rusher in tailback Alex Johnson (2,803 yards, 33 touchdowns), but quarterback Jalen Nixon ran for four scores in last Friday’s 34-21 win over Byrd that put the Bears back into the state finals for the first time since 1996.
Carencro’s ground game accounted for 332 of the team’s 342 offensive yards against Byrd, and had a drive for the ages – a 26-play, 76-yard march that ate up 14:52 of clock time – on its first possession of the second half. Byrd punted after receiving the second-half kickoff and didn’t see the ball again until only 5:24 remained in the game and the host and seventh-seeded Bears had a 27-14 lead.
“I’ve been around football a long time and that’s the longest drive I’ve ever been associated with,” says Bears coach Brent Indest, whose team lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 in his first season as head coach. “But that’s been our M.O. all year long.”
They’ll have a kindred spirit on the other sideline in fifth-seeded West Monroe, which won its 11th straight game Friday in a 26-14 victory over Mandeville. The Rebels ran for 286 yards against the Skippers and have 4,090 rush yards in 14 games this season.
But long-time Rebel coach Don Shows credits quarterback play, specifically that of senior Connor Osborne, for his team’s advancement to its 14th finals appearance since 1993. Osborne split time tp start the season and played as much at wide receiver (he’s still the team’s top receiver on the year with 15 catches) as at quarterback. He didn’t take over as full-time starter until the final three games of the regular season.
In last week’s semifinal win, Osborne had two key completions in a two-minute drill ust before halftime and then ran the final 21 yards himself to give the Rebels 16-0 lead.
“The passing ame is like night and day from where we started this year,” says Shows, who was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame last summer. "Connor is throwing with more touch than he did, and he has a feel of where he eeds to put the ball. We could have throws more, but with the defense we play, e haven’t needed to take a lot of risks.”
That defense ill be tested by the Bears' high-powered offense, one that has averaged 42.5 points per game this season including the semifinal win over Byrd -- the team that handed West Monroe a surprising 30-23 season-opening loss for its only setback against a state foe this year.
“There was a lot of relief after that game,” Indest says of the semifinal win. “Our kids realized we were beter than Byrd, but sometimes the best team doesn’t win. As good as Byrd was, I’m not sure they could have beaten the top three teams in our district (Carencro, Acadiana and Barbe), and they were 12-0. That’s a testament to the football in our district.”
Testaments aside, the Bears haven’t been to the Superdome since losing to West Monroe 24-21 in 1996, and Carencro’s only state title came four years prior to that. In that same time period, the Rebels have won seven state titles and been in the finals six other times, and this year’s senior class has made the championship game four straight years.
“They’re a program that makes a second home out of the Superdome,” Indest says. “Every round of the playoffs has been a new adventure for our kids because they’ve never been there, but they’ve handled each and every round and I expect them to be mature enough to handle it again. If we get beat, it won’t be because they’ve been there and done that.”