Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 13, 2010



LAFAYETTE – It would be easy to look at the respective seedings of the two teams facing off in today’s Class 2A championship game and assume that top-seeded Riverside is getting off easy. After all, the Rebels aren’t facing a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, but a No. 15 seed in a Jonesboro-Hodge team few would have predicted to make it this far.

But Riverside coach Timmy Byrd is hardly counting his blessings in terms of this matchup. He believes the Tigers actually present the Rebels with more potential problems than No. 3 Red River would have — hardly throwaway coach-speak, considering Byrd offered this opinion before Jonesboro-Hodge dispatched Red River in Thursday night’s semifinal matchup, 56-47.

“Most people would see that as an upset, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all (to see Jonesboro-Hodge beat Red River). I think they could surprise everyone and win,” Byrd said Thursday morning.

“They’re a whole lot better than their power ranking indicates. I think that’s certainly a top-six level team.”

Jonesboro-Hodge (23-9), presents a balanced attack, an inside-outside game that centers around 6-foot-7 center Thomas Williams, who averages 23.1 points per game.

All eyes will be on the center matchup between Williams and Riverside’s Ricardo Gathers (6-foot-7, 20 points per game).

“They’re one of the few teams with a big man that can match up with Rico,” said Byrd.

The Rebels (34-6) have absolutely dominated in the playoffs on their way to today’s game. They topped Evangel by 26, Springfield by 20, Port Barre by 35 and Sterlington by 52.

But Jonesboro-Hodge hasn’t been squeaking by. After a 10-point win over Capitol, it pulled off its signature win to this point, a 65-62 overtime victory over No. 2 seeded St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the few teams to beat Riverside this season. It then downed No. 7 Donaldsonville by 28 before felling Red River.

While it may not be able to rely on Gathers to physically dominate Williams and the Tiger interior, the Rebels’ depth figures to be among its greatest advantages. Riverside has been engaged in close, back and forth affairs in each of the last two games for a half before blowing things open in the second half.

Aside from Gathers, three other Rebels average double figures in Cedric Jenkins (19.0 ppg) Louis Dabney (13 ppg) and Ed Gallina (11 ppg). Three others (Franklin Francois, Kyle McClue and Donald Thomas) average over seven points per game.

“We feel like we can legitimately go 15 deep without a huge drop off,” said Byrd. “These teams haven’t really played a team like us with good guards, a good inside game, a physically imposing team. When we’re hitting shots, we’ve really got no weaknesses. And they’re not used to that. You don’t see teams that good, that skilled all the time.”

Evangel coach Reni Mason concurred after his team’s semifinal loss to the Rebels.

“You can’t compete against that size and skill, minute after minute,” Mason said.

One thing is for sure: this is the most anticipated game in the history of the Riverside basketball program. The school’s first-ever hoops championship hangs in the balance.

“I think the expectation was for us to get there,” said Byrd. “But now reality is starting to set in, and everyone is really excited.”

Longtime football coach Mickey Roussel attended the school as a youth and has been a mainstay ever since.

“It’s no secret that our basketball program has struggled historically,” said Roussel. “But to watch this team play at this high level … I’m not even a basketball guy, but they’re so fun to watch. Those kids have embraced the school, and the school has embraced the team back.”

Golf coach Roy Aubert has been working with the school since 1970 and is equally as tickled.

“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “These kids all say they want to win it for Riverside.”

Says Roussel: “When you hear a guy like Cedric Jenkins (a three-time champion at Reserve Christian), who’s been playing and winning in basketball forever, say that he feels like he’s after his first ring because it’s all for his school and the Riverside fans, I think that says it all.”