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Few rivalries can compare to Reserve-Lutcher games of old

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / November 4, 1998

In every sport at every level, there are rivalries that elevate that sport to another level.

In baseball, it has been the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and the New York/San Francisco Giants and Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. In theNBA, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers dueled for decades for championships. In professional football, it is the Chicago Bears and GreenBay Packers. Take your pick in college football with Ohio State-Michigan,UCLA-USC, Harvard-Yale and Florida-Florida State being among the ones most talked about.

In communities like those found in the River Parishes, rivalries between the local high school football teams can take on a different meaning. Whentwo rivals meet, it can pit family member against family member, friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor and coworker against coworker while bringing the whole community together in one place for one night.

Few rivalries anywhere could match the Reserve-Lutcher rivalry in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. It was not just a game, it was THE game. Reservealum Gerald Keller, now a St. John the Baptist Parish School Boardmember, remembers that in those days, the first nine games of the season were seen as a warmup for the last game of the season against Lutcher.

Keller said both towns would decorate in the colors of the school the week of the game.

Former Lutcher head football coach Norman Buckner recalls that the game was played on Sundays at 2 p.m. A parade would be held before the game. Ifthe game was in Reserve, Lutcher would hold the parade and vice-versa.

Buckner and Keller also said the schools would play tricks on each other.

Reserve students would even hold a mock funeral to bury the Bulldogs.

“It was such an intense rivalry that we would not even talk to people from Lutcher,” Keller said. “In the year that I graduated in which we lost, itwas an embarrassment. It was the first time in about 10 years we hadlost to Lutcher. You didn’t even go down to the dances. It was almost ahatred really. Not a hatred of the people, but a hatred of the school. We hadfriends at Lutcher. But what Lutcher stood for, and I’m sure vice versa, itwas an intense rivalry.”The rivalry became even more intense when Buckner became coach at Lutcher. Buckner was a graduate of Tulane, while Reserve coach Joe Kellerhad attended LSU. This was at a time when the LSU-Tulane rivalry was atits strongest, and many made the local rivalry into a Lutcher-Tulane, Reserve-LSU one.

Naturally, at game time, the stadium would be packed. Buckner recallsfans sitting on top of the gym and standing all the way back to the railroad tracks at the old stadium in Reserve.

“Everybody looked forward to that game,” Buckner said.

Over the years, the rivalry lost some of its luster. One reason is thatReserve – now East St. John – has moved up to Class 5A with Lutcherstaying at Class 3A. In the old days, Keller said, the district title wasusually on the line when the two teams met that final week of the season.

And even on the few times the title was not on the line, the rivalry was intense.

“I think the rivalry now (for East St. John) is more strong with Destrehanthan it is with Lutcher,” Keller said. “And that has a lot to do withdistrict competition. But the rivalry with Lutcher even in the years whenthey were not in the same district was strong because a lot of times the two teams were undefeated and were battling for turf. So there were morebragging rights than anything else.

“Like I said, when we lost in ’57, it was an embarrassment, where today you carry on to next week. It was a strong rivalry. We would go to dancesin Destrehan, no problem. But never to Lutcher, never. And vice versa.”While the rivalry was intense, Buckner said there was not any animosity between the people involved.

“Joe Keller and myself wanted to win the game,” Buckner said. “But whenit was over, we shook hands and went back to being good friends until the next year.”Around the same time Lutcher and Reserve were holding their turf wars, Destrehan and Hahnville, further to the east, were battling for the championship of St. Charles Parish. St. Charles Parish Assessor Clyde”Rock” Gisclair, a member of the 1949 Hahnville state championship team, fondly recalls the rivalry between the two schools in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Gisclair said the games helped bring the community, then dependent on the ferry to get across the Mississippi River, together.

“It was really an event,” Gisclair said. “We wanted to win; it meant somuch. We had relatives on the other side of the river that never saw eachother. So when we met in football and got together, we saw old friendsand relatives. It was an exciting time.”By the time St. Charles Parish Director of Parks and Recreation RustyRebowe joined the Destrehan team in the late 1960s, the Wildcats’ main rivalry had turned to Lutcher. Both teams were in the same district, andmany members of both communities worked with each other. Adding to therivalry was the fact the Bulldogs were coached by Lou St. Amant, aDestrehan graduate. The rivalry reached its high point in 1973 whenDestrehan defeated Lutcher, 21-0, to win the Class 3A state championship.

“We breathed and lived football back then,” Rebowe said. “In 1972-73,football was the only thing to do. Football is still important today, butkids have other things to do.”While the Wildcats’ major rivalry was with Lutcher, their rivalry with Hahnville had not lost much of its importance. In 1972, in fact, Hahnvillebeat Destrehan on first downs in a scoreless game in the state playoffs.

The Tigers would go on to win the Class 3A state championship that season.

Rebowe believes the opening of the Luling-Destrehan bridge has had a lot to do with the renewal of the intensity of the rivalry in recent years. Bothteams are also in the same district, and between 1992 and 1995, one team or the other was in the state championship game.

While parades and tricks played on the other school are largely a thing of the past, today’s rivalries do not lack for their intensity or their excitement. Fans around the parishes still circle games like Destrehan-East St. John, West St. John-St. James, West St. John-Riverside,Riverside-St. Charles Catholic and St. James-Lutcher on their calendars.Few rivalries anywhere can match that of St. James and Lutcher. Fans onboth sides of the river in recent years have braved the elements to watch these two teams annually battle for the district title and the bragging rights of being the St. James Parish champion.”Out of all the rivalries I have been involved in, it is probably the best rivalry in total,” said St. James coach Rick Gaille, who has taken part inthe LSU-Tulane rivalry. “The fans are supportive and partisan. But when itis over, it is over. They take the results for what they are and go for nextyear. It brings St. James Parish together in a venue like nothing elsedoes.”Gaille’s counterpart at Lutcher, Tim Detillier, agrees.

“It is a big one,” Detillier said. “There is a lot of cross over within theparish. It is all in fun. It is a good healthy rivalry and it has picked backup. It is good for the parish, and it is really good for St. James andLutcher. It is back and as healthy as it has ever been.”Another rivalry that is back is the one between Destrehan and East St.

John, especially since former head coach Lou Valdin brought the Wildcats’ program back up. The rivalry is one of the oldest in the River Parishes,dating back to at least 1946, and it has been evenly played throughout.

Destrehan’s 14-13 victory this season gave it a 25-22 lead in the series.

West St. John has developed rivalries in recent years with St. James,Riverside and St. Charles Catholic. Before this season, the Rams’ last twogames against St. James had gone down to the last minute. And the rivalrywith St. Charles Catholic dates back to when the teams used to battle forthe district title in the 1980s.

“They have been good for high school football,” West St. John coach LauryDupont said. “They are good for each of the programs. Whether we are inthe same district or not, I think they should continue. When we playagainst the teams locally, the intensity is up and the practices are up.”The St. Charles Catholic-Riverside rivalry has developed into one of thebest in the area in recent years. Like the Lutcher-Reserve rivalry of old, itis more of one between the fans than the players themselves. In fact,when St. Charles Catholic’s John Price missed a field goal againstRiverside in 1997 that would have sent the game into overtime, some of the first players to console him after the game were from Riverside.

“The kids are the best of buddies,” St. Charles Catholic coach WaydeKeiser said. “They are buddies before the game, they play hard againsteach other when they are playing, and after the game they are going to be buddies again. There is mutual respect between the kids on each team. “Rivalries are good as long as they are taken in the right direction. Thelast couple of years, this rivalry has been taken in that direction. It is agame played for kids by kids. When it is over, it’s over. Life goes on for365 more days. We need to keep it in perspective.”Riverside coach Mickey Roussel agreed with keeping the rivalries in perspective, adding they are good not only for the players and fans involved but for athletics.

“Where else do 16- and 17-year-olds bring this kind of excitement into a community?” Roussel said. “I tell my players a lot of high school kids donot get to play in a game like this, and that is a shame. Every high schoolathlete should get to play in a game like this. It is what high schoolathletics is and should be. It is all a game. Nothing more, nothing less. Itis a game between young men. Life goes on. Saturday morning comes andlife goes on.”