As he reflected on the season his Class 5A state runner-up Hahnville Tigers had just completed, head coach Nick Saltaformaggio said he was thankful to have the chance to coach a special group of players this season.
“Our kids never wavered on it (the goal of reaching the Superdome to play for a state championship),” Saltaformaggio said. “We lost to Ehret in a (Week 2) game we gave up a couple of crazy plays … then I did a poor job of getting them ready for our next opponent. Brother Martin knocked us in our teeth and that was a wake-up call.”
Hahnville heard those alarm bells loud and clear. That 21-6 loss to Brother Martin in Week 3 of the regular season appeared to show weaknesses in the Tigers that many thought would derail any chance of stringing together wins in the postseason. Instead, Hahnville didn’t lose again until the state championship game, stacking up 11 consecutive victories beginning with a 20-13 win over archrival Destrehan.
This season saw the Tigers win its first district championship since 2012 and return to the Superdome for the first time since 2003.
“I knew we were talented,” Saltaformaggio said. “This is Hahnville. I came to Hahnville for this … I can’t tell you what these players have done for me and done for our school. They’ve answered the bell every time I’ve asked them to, and that’s why I’ve got so much confidence in these guys … I’m proud of my guys. We had a great year and lost to a worthy champion.”
At the center of it all was Anthony “Pooka” Williams, who finished the postseason by rushing for more than 200 yards in all five of Hahnville’s playoff games, including a trio of 300 yard efforts.
Through Hahnville’s 15 game season, Williams amassed one of the highest rushing totals in state history, gaining 3,118 yards on the ground while scoring 40 total touchdowns. Even in a championship game that saw Williams credit Zachary for stopping him, he found his way to 210 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries.
“He really put us a year ahead of schedule,” Saltaformaggio said. “Our younger kids are very talented … Early on, I didn’t know exactly what we’d be. We needed to get our feet under us defensively and Anthony kept us in some games at the beginning of the year.
“He’ll go down as one of the greatest players in the history of prep football. We were laughing today as we were doing his career statistics … he rushed for almost seven miles. That’s a pretty good four years of labor.”
Said Williams, “We faced adversity this season and came together as a team. We all kept pushing to get to the destination we wanted to be.”
Given the reputation and resume he built for himself, the spotlight on Williams was never brighter than it was this postseason. Zachary defensive players zeroed in on the talented back, their coach noting they all knew he had the ability to change the game in an instant.
“He’s a special athlete without question,” said Zachary head coach David Brewerton. “I was worried if he got past our front 8, that we couldn’t tackle him. I mean, when you’re talking about 4.31 electric time at LSU, that is rolling. We don’t have anyone on our defense like that.”
While Williams is generally first associated with Hahnville when Tigers football comes up, the 2017 squad also built a reputation as a team that fights until the very last snap. The Tigers trailed Zachary 27-7 after three quarters, but battled to score a late touchdown and recover an onside kick with approximately four minutes remaining before Zachary put things away for good. Hahnville’s defense allowed no points in the second half and allowed just one of Zachary’s four second half drives to gain more than 10 yards.
“We knew what we had to do at half and we stepped up big,” said senior defensive end Lyncoy Reynaud. “We played lights out. I’m so proud of our defense and way we played in the second half. We fell short, but either way, we had a successful season. We really came together as a team.”
Senior safety Hunter LeBlanc called Zachary the best offensive team the Tigers faced all year.
“We gave the most effort I’ve ever seen in a game,” LeBlanc said. “No doubt (Zachary was the best opposing offense he’d seen). The Veer option with Acadiana was tough, but Zachary was easily the best we’ve faced.”
Though disappointed with the loss, Saltaformaggio was optimistic about the direction of the Hahnville program, which won nine games in each of his first three seasons with the team before earning 12 victories this year. Saturday represented his second trip as head coach to the Superdome in the past five seasons — he led East Jefferson to the Class 4A state championship in 2013. He believes he’ll see another one in the not too distant future.
“(The title game loss) is disappointing for the seniors, but Hahnville will be back in this Dome in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “We have a lot of really good young players, a great school and school system, the facilities are unbelievable. Everything is set up for success.”