ESJ looks to top champs

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, September 3, 2013


LAPLACE — After Hurricane Issac left East St. John displaced from its school and in need of facilities and equipment just as its season began a year ago, the Wildcats weren’t supposed to make the Class 5A playoffs. They surprised everyone, regrouping after an 0-3 start to win five of their last six regular season games and earn a postseason berth.
The Wildcats have a chance to surprise the masses again Saturday night, and a chance to do it on a big stage at that: East St. John will travel to face defending Class 5A champion Rummel in its first home game since capturing its first ever state football championship. 
Rummel is ranked sixth in the first LSWA Class 5A poll of the season, while East St. John didn’t receive a top 10 vote. The Wildcats enter as a clear underdog to break Rummel’s 14-game win streak, a position that ESJ coach Phillip Banko was just fine with embracing this week.
“They’re the defending 5A champions. That’s what they are, and they’ve reloaded,” said Banko. “We’re just hoping to go out there and keep this thing close.”
But one can safely bet the Wildcats won’t be satisfied with a moral victory. The Raiders will look to the night as a celebration of a championship won and the beginning of the pursuit for another.  
But for East St. John, a victory under such a bright spotlight would speak volumes about how far the school has come since its school flooded a year ago.
Banko downplayed the idea that his team would approach the game with any added incentive — every game, he said, is the game of the week.  But he acknowledged that to the school, community and the team’s “Wildcat Nation” supporters, the night would carry significant meaning.
“For our program, community and our school, it’s very huge,” he said. “It puts us on the big stage, and that’s where we want to be. It’s a big venue. They’re playing that opening game after winning a state championship. There’s only one other game that’ll be going on in New Orleans, so a lot of people are going to be there.”
Rummel is attempting to replace the graduated Damian Williams at quarterback, and the Raiders enter the season with a rotation at quarterback. Six starters on each side of the ball will return. The Raiders figure to base their offensive attack on the run, featuring running back Keith Fulton (202 carries for 1,234 yards and 21 touchdowns last season). Rummel also likes to feature the Wildcat formation.
That presents an intriguing matchup against an East St. John defense that’s strong up front and has been suffocating against the run so far in spring and summer action.
“We haven’t faced a team of this caliber since last season,” said Banko. “They’re gonna score points, and we’re gonna have to score if we want to have a chance. They’re that good. Above everything, we’re gonna have to protect the ball, because this could be a case where whoever has the least amount of turnovers has the advantage.”