By Kyle Roberts
November Friday nights in Louisiana are notorious for drama and excitement, as well as shock and heartbreak.
In Ruston last week, the top-seeded Bearcats shook off a sluggish start against familiar foe in No. 17 Ouachita at home in the second round of the 2022 playoffs. After trailing 13-7 at halftime, head coach Jerrod Baugh and his crew changed the narrative of the ballgame by outscoring the Lions 30-3 in the second half thanks in large part to five total touchdowns from senior tailback Dyson Fields.
At the same time and nearly 60 miles west, one of the most dramatic and controversial finishes occurred with the No. 9 Denham Springs Yellowjackets somehow beating the No. 8 Benton Tigers with a last-second field goal for a 29-28 win, despite Benton having the ball up by two points and trying to run the clock out by taking knees.
The ripples of that finish reverberated throughout the high school football landscape, and in the wake has set the stage for Ruston to travel to Denham Springs, looking to both extend its 10-game win streak and advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1999.
Ruston has made it to the quarterfinals every season that Baugh has been the head coach except for his first year in 2017 after struggling for almost two decades to consistently make it past the second round of the postseason. Now, Baugh is hoping to create a new Thanksgiving tradition for the program: being a constant presence in the semifinals, and perhaps, beyond.
“We’re happy to have the opportunity to keep going,” Baugh said. “The kids have earned it. This being the fifth year in a row for the chance to play on Thanksgiving week is something that’s special. I’m glad that it’s gotten to be customary for us to have that opportunity. I think now, I’d like to make a new habit where we’re not just playing on Thanksgiving week, but we’re winning on Thanksgiving.”
That mentality has broken through to the team, as well, and after last season’s quarterfinal loss at Destrehan, this 2022 Bearcat squad is on a mission to win and keep moving forward.
“It says a lot about our kids that our football program is in,” Baugh said. “I think after last season, our kids made a decision that they wanted to do some things differently and try to push past not winning district championships, or beating West Monroe, or getting out of the third round. Led by this senior class, they made a pact that they wanted to do something different. I’m proud for them earning the opportunity to get past another one of these hurdles.”
Standing in the way is a Denham Springs team that finished 8-2 on the season and shocked the high school football world last week with a last-second field goal. After trailing multiple touchdowns for much of the contest, the Yellowjackets managed to pull within two points in the final minutes, down 28-26. After being unable to run the entirety of the clock off with kneel downs, controversy ensued with as 0.6 seconds was left on the clock after the final Benton play. With time expiring, a Denham Springs field goal would go through, and an emotional Yellowjacket team advanced and will host Ruston tonight.
“Denham Springs is a really good football team,” Baugh said. “Their quarterback and their skills guys get a lot of press, but it doesn’t take long watching video to see guys on the offensive and defensive lines being really physical. I think they take a lot of pride upfront of what they do on both sides of the football. Their offensive tackles start on their defensive line, as well, and I kept watching film expecting those guys to get tired and they never did. It really impressed me that they can play on both sides of the football as well as what they did.”
Nothing is given in a quarterfinal matchup, and Baugh and his staff know this.
“We’re in for a battle,” Baugh said. “They do a really good job coaching their football team. We’re going to need to play well.”
Ruston and Denham Springs will kickoff at 7 p.m. with the Jerrod Baugh Coach’s Show starting at 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on Z107.5 FM and can be streamed on http://www.BearcatNationNetwork.com.