By RYAN ARENA
BOUTTE — When archrivals East St. John and Hahnville face off each season, they compete for district championships. They compete for respect. They compete for bragging rights.
In 2012, they may be competing for survival.
Neither team began the season as they envisioned. After Hurricane Issac, each team had to cancel its first game of the season; East St. John lost its first three games of the season, and Hahnville the first four.
If the playoffs began today, neither team would be inside the top 32 in Class 5A power points; without a district championship, the postseason is a promise for neither team.
It sets the stage for an ultra-heated matchup between teams that need to win.
“Because of our predistrict, the only way to guarantee a playoff spot is to win this district,” said Hahnville coach Lou Valdin. “You win it, you’re in. That’s what we’re looking at right now.”
East St. John Phillip Banko knows the history of this rivalry, though only in his second year as head coach; he was the defensive coordinator of the Wildcats when they played a six overtime game against HHS in 2008 and also for the two overtime game between the teams in 2009.
“We’re always gonna play,” said Banko. “Put Hahnville and East St. John in different districts and they’ll play. It’s a tremendous rivalry.”
He downplayed the longterm significance of Friday’s result, believing that not is not the time to be thinking about playoff scenerios or district crowns.
“We’re focused on Hahnville and only Hahnville,” said Banko. “We’re 1-0 (in district) and we’re hoping to be 2-0 after Friday.”
Both teams are coming off of arguably their most impressive efforts of the season. The Wildcats shutout John Ehret last week in their district opener, 28-0. East St. John’s defense forced four turnovers and brought one back — defensive end Charlie Payne’s 66-yard interception return — for a touchdown. East St. John held Ehret’s standout rusher, Darrel Williams, to 81 yards rushing, and just seven in the second half.
Hahnville, likewise, comes off a win in its district opener, edging Bonnabel 20-19.
For the Tigers, the game saw a much-needed resuscitation of the ground game. Hahnville’s Sergio Medina and Cody Morales combined to rush for 292 yards on 43 carries, Medina notching 162 of those in his first game at tailback.
Medina usually starts for Hahnville at middle linebacker, but added a much needed jolt to the ground game, one that had struggled mightily in losses to McDonogh No. 35 and St. Augustine.
Valdin, though, said his team will need more to get by East St. John.
“They’ll make adjustments,” said Valdin. “We’ll have to run. But we need to be able to throw and catch … We need to get our passing game in sync, more than it’s been.”
When Valdin looks at the Wildcats, one attribute stands above all the rest.
“Speed,” he said. “You have to be very, very disciplined. We’ll have to work for our points and we need to make them do the same.”
Banko, in turn, doesn’t see a team that resembles a 1-4 product in any way, shape or form.
“I don’t look at records. I look at film. And this is a very good football team,” said Banko. “They should have won every game. You eliminate those turnovers, they’re 4-1, 5-0.
“I know Lou Valdin. He’s an excellent coach. He’s never had a losing season. He’s never missed the playoffs. And he’ll have his team ready.”
To win, Valdin said Hahnville must do two things: the first is to limit mistakes. Bonnabel pushed Hahnville to the limit last week largely due to a pair of first half turnovers that were returned by the Bruins for touchdowns.
“We haven’t gotten any cheap touchdowns,” said Valdin. “We work for everything. We have to drive the ball down there. That means we can’t afford to turn it over and we can’t afford those drive-killing penalties.”
The second key is for Hahnville to slow down Leonard Davis, East St. John’s Tulane-committed quarterback.
“He’s a dual threat,” said Valdin. “He can run, (and) he can throw. We’ve got to get pressure on him, because he makes them go.
“If he has a big game on Friday night, we lose. Stopping him is the key.”
To listen to both coaches, then, one might come away thinking it’ll be a battle of unstoppable force vs. immovable object - Banko sees Hahnville’s defense as a force.
“Their defense is huge. They’re playing with men over there,” said Banko.
“It’s gonna be senior night at Tiger Stadium. They’ll have the Tiger band, the fireworks and the hyped crowd.
“Vegas just called me,” Banko joked, “and said those guys are favored by 21.”
But though Banko knows it’s in for a fight, he believes his group of tough-minded players is up to the challenge.
“We can’t focus on any of that extra stuff. As long as each man focuses on doing his job, we’ll be ok. We had a good day of practice (Monday). I’m expecting another today.” �