For the first time all season, Destrehan was in danger.
The Wildcats trailed 14-7 in the second half at East St. John in the Division I non-select quarterfinal round, approximately a month after DHS’ 48-7 win over ESJ in Week 9. But this was a much different East St. John team – and a much different game, one that ultimately came down to one play.
After Destrehan rallied to take a 21-14 lead, East St. John’s Koyal Gray scored on a deep post off of a Yashua Mitchell pass to pull ESJ within one, 21-20, with 1:55 left. East St. John head coach Brandon Brown elected to go for a two-point conversion that would put his team ahead, perhaps for good. But Destrehan cornerback Travon Thomas broke up a Mitchell pass attempt, and moments later Destrehan recovered an onside kick, ran down the remainder of the clock and sealed a one-point victory that propels them into the state semifinals.
“We kept saying, we’re not losing tonight. We can’t go home. We’re not going home early,’” said Destrehan running back Shane Lee, who made several big runs in the fourth quarter. “This year we want to go to the championship and we’re trying to win it.”
Lee said this game had a much different feel to it than the Week 9 matchup.
“They came out more physical than the last time,” said Lee of ESJ. “I think it was all about the hype for them last game and tonight they realized it’s not about that, and they came out more physical … East St. John is a good team. We had to keep our energy up and play harder.”
Destrehan head coach Marcus Scott is now 3-0 at Destrehan in the quarterfinal round. This win may have been the most hard-fought.
“We had to really fight adversity,” Scott said. “Coach (Brown) and his staff had them prepared. We didn’t connect on some early plays and we got into a dog fight.”
DHS will host its semifinal game as Westgate upset No. 2 seed Neville, 21-10, in their quarterfinal matchup. Westgate travels to Destrehan next Friday night.
Destrehan (12-0) struggled to get on track offensively until a wild fourth quarter that saw DHS score two of its three touchdowns on the night – and nearly a third, negated by a fumble at the goal line. ESJ (11-2) had stymied Destrehan’s vaunted rushing attack all night, but Shane Lee and Anthony Robinson began to find running room on the outside and got the Destrehan offense flowing in a way observers have been used to all season long.
Getting there was bumpy, though.
Destrehan led 7-0 at halftime but East St. John struck quickly in the third quarter to knock the visitor back and onto the ropes. George Martin found a lane and zoomed through it for a 44-yard touchdown run to tie the game with less than two minutes gone in the second half. On ESJ’s next possession, Cortez Fisher followed suit, his 46-yard scoring run putting Destrehan behind by a touchdown – it was the first deficit at all, of any kind, for DHS all season long.
Late in the third quarter, Destrehan finally found some footing, and appeared to have tied the game on a Jai Eugene touchdown run. But the play was called back for holding, and compounding matters for DHS was a personal foul penalty added on top of it. Suddenly, DHS needed 20 yards for a first down, and ultimately Eugene’s heave on 4th and 15 for Johnnie Thiel in the endzone came up incomplete.
But Destrehan’s defense stood tall and forced a quick ESJ punt. Another Eugene run was called back for holding, but this time Destrehan had an answer for it – a well-designed screen pass that saw Eugene feign left before finding Shane Lee to the right with several blockers set up. It was all Lee needed to take it to the house and tie the game.
“We felt we’d eventually get on track … we didn’t realize it would take so long,” Scott said. “Credit to East St. John.”
DHS forced a three-and-out, and this time Robinson found the running room. The junior, who has primarily played on defense but played both ways Friday night to help spark his team, got loose to the outside and was on the verge of scoring – but ESJ stripped him just before he crossed the goal line, creating a turnover.
East St. John was still backed up on its own 1 after the fumble recovery, however, and after gaining 9 yards on third down had to punt on 4th and 1.
This time, DHS made good and took the lead. Lee gouged the ESJ front for a 27-yard run to the 6-yard line and Eugene scored on a keeper to put his team ahead 21-14 with 3:12 left.
“I saw the (defensive) end, they kept slanting hard, so I knew the outside would be open,” Lee said of the team’s late adjustments to get the running game back on track.
East St. John faced a 3rd and 10 when Mitchell found Fisher downfield for a big gain down to the DHS 25. Shortly after, he connected with Gray, setting up the 2-point try.
When it mattered, Thomas came up big.
“When we saw it drop incomplete, we all went crazy,” said Lee. “But we know (Thomas) is a great man-coverage player and we knew he’d get it done.”
Brown said there are no regrets to the two-point decision.
“We came here to win,” Brown said. “We had an opportunity to win and we’re gonna take it. I felt we had a good call for it. Convert, then put it on our defense to win it. I feel like if we go ahead there, it puts more pressure on them. We’ve been in some tough games, and they hadn’t, so we wanted to put that pressure on them.”
For East St. John, the loss was a bitter one to absorb given how close it was to advancing to the state semifinal round. Additionally, Brown had issues with a couple of key calls by officials, notably a pass interference penalty and a late false start on Destrehan that negated what he believed to be a fumble.
But the adjustments he and his team made from Week 9 turned what was a lopsided loss to a game to remember.
“We wanted to make them play a full football game, because they haven’t had to,” Brown said. “We didn’t get caught up in the hype like last time, this wasn’t about a district championship, this was win or go home … we made some adjustments. And Destrehan is a great team. Coach Scott does a great job, they have an excellent staff and they made some great second half adjustments.
“Last time out, they punched us in the mouth and we didn’t punch back. This time, we came out and punched back a little. My guys left it all out there on the field. I loved our effort.”