Rams send 8 to college ranks

Published 11:45 pm Friday, February 8, 2013



EDGARD — National Signing Day is always a big deal in the world of prep football. And to walk into the West St. John gym Wednesday morning, that’s exactly the vibe one got: This is a very big deal, indeed.

Eight players from the Class 1A school signed on the dotted line at a ceremony held in front of the players’ family, friends, coaches, teachers and classmates.

West St. John seniors Eric Bell (Tulane), Damond Pierce (Ohio Western), Raymond Draten (Bluffton) and Murphy Legeaux (Mississippi College) sat at one table. Meanwhile the quartet of Kylum Favorite, Dontre Turner, Justin Bethancourt and Javen Toney sat together at another; they’ll stay together going forward, as all four signed with Southern.

“I’ve dreamt of this day for a long time,” said Toney.

Said Bell, “I can’t wait to get to Tulane. I’m ready to play.”

The eight players helped form the core of a West St. John team that reached the Class 1A championship game in 2011 and the state semifinals in 2012. The Rams also won two district championships over that span.

West St. John coach Robert Valdez smiled when reflecting on at what point he knew this year’s signing day could yield such a large class.

“It kind of hit me when I was planning for this thing, ‘I’m gonna need a bigger venue,” said Valdez, noting that signing day ceremonies had been held in the school library in recent years.

“It’s fantastic for these kids and for our program. They’ve played in a lot of big football games and coaches have had the opportunity to see just how good they can be.”

Bell, a 6-foot-2-inch, 260 pound defensive tackle, committed to Tulane last summer, one of three St. John Parish athletes to do so. Bell said he is good friends with ESJ’s Leonard Davis, another Tulane signee.

He also credited current LSU linebacker and former Ram Ronnie Feist for pushing Bell to reach his potential.

“We’d work together over the summer. He inspired me,” said Bell. “I didn’t think of this as a realistic goal necessarily, but he kept pushing me, telling me I had potential.”

West St. John Principal Erica Merrick wore two hats Wednesday: as proud principal of a school with eight signees, and as proud parent; Bell is Merrick’s son.

“It’s really unbelievable,” said Merrick. “When they offered him last summer, it was like a dream come true. To know he’s going to a school like Tulane, with their academic reputation and excellence … it’s all you could ever ask for.”

Favorite, 2012’s L’Observateur Offensive MVP, rushed for 1,305 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

He broke out as a junior after injuries forced incumbent starter Jeremy Jackson to the sidelines for most of the season.

The attitude he carried as a backup is something he said he’ll take with him to Southern.

“I just made sure I was ready to prove myself every day, even as a backup,” said Favorite.

“Play your supporting role as well as you can and wait to get your shot.”

Turner, Bethancourt and Toney will join him. Turner and Toney helped comprise a fearsome linebacking unit along with Legaux, while defensive backs Bethancourt, Draten and Pierce made downfield passing a risky proposition.

“We’ve got a real brotherly bond between us,” said Toney. “I liked Southern because not only do I feel like there’s an opportunity to start, but it’s a chance to keep playing with some of my teammates.”

Turner echoed those thoughts.

“We all wanted to stay together. I was hoping to play with one of them,” said Turner. “But now, three of them is even better.”

Turner said Valdez, a Southern graduate, did not steer him in any direction, instead advising him to “make the best choice for you.”

That said, Valdez was pleased with how things turned out.

“I do go to Southern football games,” he said with a laugh.

Valdez noted that the eight players represented his first class of 8th graders when he took over at the school.

“We had a five-year plan when I started. We made it to the Superdome in the fourth year and we signed eight in the fifth,” said Valdez. “This is a truly special group.”