Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 9, 2009



Only a week after admitting that he “wouldn’t sleep” after his team fell a mere yard short of defeating Riverside in their jamboree matchup, West St. John coach Robert Valdez saw another slumber-free night ahead.

Oh, but this time, it was for a decidedly different reason.

“It’s a totally different feeling,” said Valdez. “This is the biggest win of my life as a coach…the best feeling I’ve had since probably my playing days.”

The second year Rams coach had just seen his team upset archrival St. James, 16-14, on the Wildcats home field behind a heroic defensive effort and a gutty offensive performance.

“Everyone doubted us,” said defensive lineman Blake Carter. “We’re the only ones who believed that we could do it. And we shocked the world.”

It was the non-district season opener for both teams. But while no district title race would be affected, the clash between the 1A Rams and the 3A Wildcats was no less emotional.

“When these teams play, its more than just a game. It’s almost like a war,” said West St. John quarterback Dray Joseph, who accounted for two touchdowns. “Everyone knows one another, and we all talk trash. By the time the game comes, everyone is more than ready.”

St. James (0-1) entered the game as Class 3A’s fourth ranked team in the opening Louisiana Sports Writers Association poll. West St. John was ranked No. 10 in Class 1A.

It certainly seemed early on that St. James would show itself worthy of its lofty status. No sooner than the opening kickoff did the Wildcats put the first points on the board, as Kenneth Amant broke off an 82-yard return for a score to make it 7-0.

“They punched us in the mouth to start things off,” said Valdez. “It shows the character of this team that they bounced back strong.”

Late in the second quarter, St. James made it 14-0 after a 5-yard touchdown run by Christian Verret that capped off a 25-yard drive. The Wildcats began deep in WSJ territory thanks to a big return by Alonzo Lewis, and a fourth-and-13 conversion on a 23-yard pass from Antoine Landry to John Shepard.

But much as both Wildcat touchdowns were set up via the kick return game, West St. John (1-0) would see its own fortunes swing on special teams.

Kenneth Dabney took the ensuing kickoff all the way to the St. James 48 with 3:00 left in the first half. The Rams drove to the SJH 19 and nearly stalled. But on fourth down,

Joseph threw a pretty pass into the back of the end zone that Cory Warmington emerged with for a score. Joseph would keep the ball himself for the added two-point conversion, and the Rams cut the Wildcat lead to 14-8 with 1:33 left in the half.

“Coming out early on, I was a little over excited,” said Joseph. “But after the first few drives, I settled down and started making plays.”

The first possession of the second half saw more good special teams fortune shine on the Rams. After being stopped at their own 20 for an apparent three-and-out, a roughing the kicker call extended the WSJ drive. St. James pushed WSJ back again, and the Rams punted away to Lewis, who called for a fair catch. But Lewis fumbled the ball and the Rams recovered at the SJH 36.

“That was absolutely the turning point,” said St. James coach Rick Gaille. “We go from getting it inside their 30, to getting it at midfield, to giving it to them right outside of our redzone. We were inconsistent in competing…we haven’t learned yet how to bounce back from a bad play, and line up and play the next one.”

Joseph then settled into a groove running the ball. Each of the next five plays were Joseph runs, capped by a 3-yard touchdown jaunt that made it 14-14. Dabney put West St. John ahead for good, scoring the two-point conversion on an end around.

“(Joseph’s) a senior,” said Valdez. “You have to put the ball in your senior’s hands and let him go make the plays you need to win. Dray did that tonight.”

Said Carter: “Our quarterback’s got such a big heart. He ran hard all night.”

From there, it was the defense’s time to shine. West St. John tried to surprise St. James with an onside kick, but to no avail — the Wildcats recovered and were in business at the SJH 49. St. James drove to the WSJ 12, but the Rams stuffed a run on fourth-and-two to end the threat.

The defense had to defend a short field again in the fourth quarter, after an exchange of punts saw the Wildcats begin on the WSJ 34. But all it amounted to was a four-and-out, the drive-killer coming when Landry could not hook up with

Lewis on fourth-and-four — a dropped pass just past the first down marker gave WSJ the ball on downs. From there,

Joseph and Dabney combined to gobble up 61 yards and whittle the clock down from 6:26 to under a minute left. St. James took over on its own 10, but the Rams hardly left enough time to take advantage.

“We never took the fight to them,” said Gaille. “That allowed their defense to maintain momentum. When you look at their personnel, and how hard they played in the jamboree last week…it’s no surprise at all. When you don’t take the fight to them, West St. John takes it to you.”