It might sound familiar, even unwelcome for Hahnville football’s community of supporters.
Defending state champion Zachary awaits the Tigers this Friday night, a statement that has stood as a prelude to “the end” for Hahnville, and virtually all other 5A playoff opponents, over the past few seasons. The No. 12 seeded Tigers will make a road trip to face the 5th seeded Broncos in the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs, trying to reverse a trend that’s seen ZHS eliminate Hahnville in three of the past four years.
Each of those Zachary wins over Hahnville came en route to a state championship, including a state championship final between the teams in 2017. Zachary is aiming for its third straight crown and fourth in the past five seasons.
While a stern challenge, to Hahnville coach Nick Saltaformaggio, it also represents an opportunity for his team to reach another program benchmark.
“It’s the benchmark of 5A football, having to play them,” said Saltaformaggio. “The good news is if you’re playing Zachary, it means you’re winning in the playoffs, because you know they are. When you’re on their side of the bracket, it becomes inevitable … you’ll have to go through them.”
Zachary (9-2) defeated Live Oak decisively last week, 39-7, to advance to round two. Hahnville (9-2), meanwhile, bested No. 21 Chalmette 28-6, controlling that game throughout.
The Broncos began the season 0-2, but have piled up nine wins in a row coming into this week. Hahnville began this season 8-0 and found its groove – and Saltaformaggio says, its ground and pound identity – in the Chalmette win. Both teams, then, have shown the capacity to stack long winning streaks in the tough 5A ranks, something only the state’s elite programs do with regularity.
Both of these programs would fit the description. Saltaformaggio said, however, the Tigers still have something to prove when separating the true best of the best.
“Friday was our 55th win in six years. I think most people look at Hahnville as an elite program and I think we are. We’ve accomplished a lot,” Saltaformaggio said. “But year in and year out, for people to rank you in the top 10 and pencil you in for those long playoff runs, you have to beat the Destrehans and the Zacharys of the world.”
Hahnville earned a share District 7-5A championship honors along with East St. John this season and had the best start to a season in the Saltaformaggio era — and the best in a long time for any HHS team.
But two goals he’d hoped to reach eluded the Tigers in regular season play. He looked at games with Jesuit and Destrehan as benchmark games, and HHS came up short in both, dropping the Tigers to 1-6 against Destrehan and 1-6 against select schools in the Saltaformaggio era.
Likewise, the team is 0-3 against Zachary.
“We’ve come up to another crossroad,” Saltaformaggio said.
Hahnville fans know Zachary’s quarterback well: Keilon Brown, now a senior, is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the state.
“This is our fourth time facing him,” Saltaformaggio said. “And, thankfully, the last.”
Brown beats teams by throwing to a receiving corps rich in talent, including top wideout Chris Hilton. But he may be even more dangerous when he runs with the ball.
“It’s not the zone-read stuff or the sprint out passes that concern he the most. It’s when you cover everyone and he pulls it in and tucks the ball to run, he’s got 53 and a third yards of field to work with,” Saltaformaggio said of the Memphis commitment. “He’s probably the best skill player in the state and it’s been that way for two years. He’s the straw that stirs the drink. When the play breaks down, he’s at his most dangerous.”
Saltaformaggio called Hilton a “terror” to deal with.
“He’s burned us two years in a row,” Saltaformaggio said. “You look at Quincy Brown at Destrehan, who we just played, (Hilton) is Quincy Brown all over again.”
Jayden Williams is another of several tough receivers to deal with, which keeps defenses spread out and allows Brown ample room to operate.
Along the offensive line, Saltaformaggio noted the Broncos’ interior is very strong at guard and center. On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos aren’t blessed with the same size as the past two championship teams, but still has one of the state’s fastest front sevens. The secondary is young but there are playmakers in the defensive backfield.
“Those linebackers always arrive in a mean mood,” Saltaformaggio said.
Last week, the Tigers ran for more than 200 yards and scored three times on the ground against Chalmette, mixing in a few passes with a very run-heavy formula. It saw Darryle Evans produce one of his biggest games of a strong season, while Trey Labranch and Corey Lorio also mixed into a productive rushing attack.
That has to continue, Saltaformaggio said, while quarterback Drew Naquin must deliver another efficient, relatively mistake-free game if the team is to conquer its recent nemesis.
But it will primarily come down to slowing Brown, Saltaformaggio believes.
“We have to be able to control him. If he passes for 150 and runs for 150, they win. It’s simple as that,” he said.
To fell Zachary, Saltaformaggio said the mental game is also vital. The atmosphere can’t overwhelm the Tigers, he said, noting the Broncos’ home field advantage is like few others.
“That Jumbotron looks like it should be in a college stadium,” Saltaformaggio said. “They have those three signs up there for those state championships. We have to handle it.
“We’ve let ourselves get beat by the letter on the side of the helmet in the past. We need to start thinking about that purple H on the side of ours and what that represents. That’s the absolute key, to me.”