by Malcolm Butler
Oh so close.
As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard late Friday night at the Superdome, the Ruston Bearcats (12-2) came up a touchdown short.
Destrehan 17, Ruston 10
And by the immediate reaction of the Ruston players as the clock hit zeroes, it was obvious they weren’t content on just being back in the state title game. This bunch came with the mindset of taking the championship trophy back to the northern part of the state.
They came up just short.
Raw emotions flowed from players, coaches, spirit squad members and the Bearcat faithful that made the trip to support their team.
“I was just thinking how much work we put in all season,” said linebacker Jadon Mayfield. “All the work since we lost to Destrehan (last year). How we built a culture in the locker room. How hard all of these guys work and how they left it all out on the field. It just got me very emotional.”
Mayfield, who was named the MVP for the state runner-up, wasn’t the only one who felt a wide variety of emotions.
Ruston head coach Jerrod Baugh talked in the postgame press conference about another kind of emotion as he spoke of his senior class and the team as a whole.
“They checked a lot of boxes off the list in order to get this program to the next level,” said Baugh. “They may not realize it right now because they are hurting so much at the moment. But I can’t tell you how proud I am of this senior class and this team. We all grew through the season. They probably taught me as much or more than I taught them. I am proud of them.”
The game was a good ole fashioned defensive slugfest. Old school slobberknocker if you will.
Destrehan (14-0) capitalized on some early Ruston miscues to take a 7-0 lead. The Bearcats, playing in the dome for the first time since 1998, came out a little too amped up. Seven penalties in the first quarter on the Bearcats offense kept Ruston behind the sticks.
“That’s a big stage out there,” said Baugh when asked about the early game jitters. “Probably a good thing I wasn’t out there lined up. You try to simulate those things as much as you can in practice. We took the kids to LSU’s indoor and the Saints indoor, but there isn’t anything like it when there are a bunch of fans out there. We were excited to be out there, and I think the excitement got to us a little at times early in the game.”
A 57-yard pass from Jai Eugene to Daniel Blood set up the Wildcats touchdown, a 5-yard run by Shane Lee with 8:00 to play in the first quarter. After that, the Ruston defense dominated.
Even when they were put on a short field.
Following a fumble by Dyson Fields on a pitch play midway through the second quarter, Destrehan took over first and goal on the Bearcats 2-yard line. A chance for the Wildcats to take a two-TD lead in a game that felt like there wouldn’t be a lot of points scored.
However, Christian Davis plowed through the line on first down to tackle Lee for a loss of three yards. Then following a false start penalty, Mayfield sacked Eugene for a loss. Another false start penalty pushed the Wildcats even further back and eventually Destrehan was forced to kick a 33-yard field goal with 6:52 to play in the second quarter.
It was points for Destrehan but a win for the Bearcats defense.
Ruston held Lee, the highly-recruited bruising tailback for the Wildcats, to just 28 yards rushing on 16 carries in the game. As a team Destrehan managed just 11 first downs in the game.
“We started this season knowing we were a little inexperienced on the offensive line and we were going to need to lean on our defense to bail us out early in the season,” said Baugh. “They did exactly that until our offense got rolling. The characteristics that they showed on that goal line stand is what they have shown all season. When they take the field it doesn’t matter if its on the plus three yard line or the minus three yard line, they go out there and go to work and that’s what they have done all season.”
Jordan Hayes gave Ruston the spark it needed on the ensuring kickoff, taking it back 52 yards. Tack on a 15-yard facemask penalty and the Bearcats started the drive on the Destrehan 16. Two plays later, Jaden Osborne found Aaron Jackson in the front corner of the endzone for a TD. RJ Brown’s extra point made the score 10-7.
The second half was more of the same with both teams struggling to move the football. Destrehan held Ruston to just 99 yards rushing on 32 carries and only 189 yards of total offense in the game.
“I think what you saw was Destrehan is a really good football team,” said Baugh. “Coach Scott does a wonderful job. They put together a really good game plan. We knew they would. They have put us out of the playoffs the past two years. They accept the challenge that a lot of people aren’t really interested in doing. We line up and run the football. That’s what we hang our hat on. Their guys dug in. That’s a tough bunch.”
After barely misfiring on a pair of 40-plus yard field goals, Brown knotted the score up at 10-10 with a 24-yard effort with 6:54 to play in the ball game. The stage was set.
However, Eugene — who was bottled up most of the night by the Ruston defense — came up with two big third down conversions on the following drive for Destrehan. The final play was a 29-yard scamper for a score that gave the Wildcats a 17-10 lead with 3:22 to play in the game.
Ruston had two more opportunities but both ended in interceptions, including the final one with less than a minute to play and the Bearcats inside the Destrehan 35-yard line.
Despite the loss, Baugh said this group has set a precedent.
“They have set the standard back to what Ruston football is supposed to be,” said Baugh. “And now it’s up to the group next year to make sure they live up to that. They are the ones that took the bull by the horns and decided that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to set the standard for the program. There is a difference between trying to be a good football team and setting a standard for the entire program. And these kids have absolutely done that.”
A sea of Ruston red traveled to New Orleans for the title game, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the Bearcat players.
“Our fans mean the world to me,” said Fields. “You saw how many (Ruston fans) were out there. It meant the world to us to have that support system. I think we have the best fans in the state.”
Fans who were afforded an opportunity to go back to the Superdome thanks to the play of the 2022 Bearcats.