East St. John has long been known for its ability to generate explosive plays. On Friday night at Hahnville, the Wildcats offered a pair of early reminders.
Yashua Mitchell connected with Koyal Gray for touchdowns of 41 and 95 yards in the first half en route to building a 27-10 first half lead and held off a spirited Hahnville comeback to emerge with a 33-24 victory in Boutte.
Mitchell accounted for all five of East St. John’s touchdowns on the night, including a two-yard sneak with 3:43 left to play that pushed East St. John (5-0, 2-0) ahead by nine. The Wildcats were able to stand tall on defense from there.
That drive was a critical answer by the Wildcats after Hahnville (2-3, 0-2) came up with a potentially game-turning defensive play, when Ahmad Simmons sacked Mitchell and forced a fumble that the Tigers recovered at the East. St. John 17. Calvin Smith scored a touchdown from a yard away to cut what had been a 17-point lead down to 27-24 early in the fourth quarter.
“After that happened, you could tell guys weren’t feeling right,” said Mitchell. “I was trying to get my guys together, make sure we’re still up … tell them to relax and that everything’s gonna be good, we’re gonna go out and win this. Keep that good mindset.”
Mitchell and the offense got a big lift from George Martin, who forms a rushing tandem with starting back Cortez Fisher. Martin ran hard – and very effectively – immediately finding a seam for a 33-yard gain on the first play of East St. John’s ensuing drive. Several big chunk runs by Martin brought East St. John inside the 10, but Hahnville’s defense stiffened and forced a fourth and goal from the 1.
That’s when Mitchell took it in himself to create some breathing room for his team.
“(Martin) is a resilient kid, a program guy who’s been with us the past four years,” said East St. John head coach Brandon Brown. “He’s worked extremely hard and his time has come. He comes through every time we call his number.
“As a team, we really stepped up when we had to. The most rewarding thing as a coach is when you’re punched in the mouth, to see your guys punch right back and we did that tonight.”
For Hahnville, a young Tigers’ team showed guts in clawing back, but left several opportunities on the field that could lend to ‘what ifs?’
“I was proud of the way our guys kept fighting,” said Hahnville head coach Daniel Luquet. “This is a young group that continues to grow. East St. John is a 4-0 football team that’s put up a lot of points, and I felt we held our own. We’ve got to figure out how to finish drives and take advantage of turnovers when we get those opportunities.”
Hahnville took an early lead on a Dylan Patterson field goal. The Tigers had East St. John backed up on a third and 15 when Mitchell scrambled for 12 yards to set up a fourth and 3. Cortez got the call and converted.
On the very next play, Mitchell threw a bomb to Gray, who made a diving catch in the endzone to give the Wildcats a 7-3 lead.
Hahnville drove down to the East St. John 23, but a sack of quarterback Ryan Gregson by Jerry Phillips coupled with a holding penalty set the Tigers back and forced them to settle for a field goal attempt. The kick came up short and ESJ took over.
After a stop, HHS took over and again got a drive going into ESJ territory. This time the Tigers reached the ESJ 28, but this drive too was negated by mistakes.
Hahnville downed a punt near the ESJ goal line. But it ultimately only meant more yards for Mitchell and Gray as the former fired a ball to the latter on a post, who jaunted for the 95-yard touchdown and made it 13-3, with the extra point failing.
“We didn’t get a lot of pressure on Mitchell in the first half,” Luquet said. “And if you don’t, then guys like (Gray) can get loose and run away from you. But this Is who they are – East St. John is a big play offense, a big play team. That’s their M.O., and they did it well tonight.”
ESJ came up with a key defensive play next, as Ky’Van Fobb recovered a fumble that popped in the air at the HHS 29. Mitchell connected with Dkhai Joseph for a 34-yard score, making it 19-6 after a failed two-point try.
Hahnville marched back down the field with a response, Calvin Smith scoring from the Tigers’ “Beast” formation at the 2-yard-line to cut the lead to 19-10.
The lead grew to 17 again, but Hahnville cut things to 10 before half on Smith’s second touchdown run of the night.
The Tigers had a chance to kick the rally into high gear when Cincere Simmons recovered a fumble at the ESJ 17 early in the third quarter. But East St. John turned Hahnville back on a 4th and 1 run attempt, ending the drive.
Hahnville came up with a crucial stop of its own with East St. John inside the Tigers’ 10, pushing ESJ back and ultimately forcing a stop on 4th and long.
But East St. John ultimately closed the deal.
“We have to be able to take advantage of turnovers. We did late in the game, but we left some chances out there,” said Luquet. “It’s a growing process. We have to put all three phases together. When this team does that, it’ll be a very special thing to watch.”