By Kyle Roberts
The vibe is different this year.
Make no mistake: West Monroe (8-1, 4-0 District 2-5A) is a good football team, and fans can expect an electric atmosphere at Rebel Stadium tonight as the undefeated Ruston Bearcats (9-0, 4-0 District 2-5A) make the journey eastward with their eyes set on the chance at a second consecutive outright District 2-5A championship.
But gone this year are the ghosts and demons that haunted Ruston for nearly thirty years, thanks to the 2022 Bearcats ending a long streak of Rebel losses with a 35-17 win to close out last year’s regular season.
Even so, Ruston High head coach Jerrod Baugh is mindful of the distractions that a game with this kind of anticipation and the potential outcomes will bring.
“At the end of the day, you know, there are distractions for every football game and to me they’re all just as big,” Baugh said. “They’re not the same, but they’re just as big. I mean, you get ready to go into the ballgame last week, and you have a set of distractions with senior night. And Ouachita is a good football team, but they hadn’t been playing very well at times. And then the previous week, you’re getting ready to play West Ouachita where everybody thinks you’re supposed to blow them out. So you have to guard against the distractions of people telling our guys you’re supposed to be a 50 point win or whatever the case. Or you have homecoming.
“Every week there’s some sort of something. You know, maybe you’re traveling 5 hours away to go play a ballgame and getting on a charter bus or getting ready to play ASH and we’re out of school. And so you got to deal with all this. To me, there’s no difference in whatever those things are. And our team has to learn how to deal with those things, regardless of what they change to be.”
For Baugh and the coaching staff, it will be a good litmus test heading into the postseason and seeing how the ‘Cats compete in a stadium that will be a very pro-Rebel atmosphere.
“West Monroe is a good football team,” Baugh said. “It’s a really great opportunity for us as the tenth game of the year going into the playoffs to see where we are as a football team. If you rewind back to whenever we were getting ready to play them in the jamboree, I said the same thing. And now we get to see how much we’ve improved and how much they’ve improved. And then, you know where we are going into the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing I want to see.”
“They’re going to have a big crowd, and a lot of them are not going to be cheering for us. That will be something we have to overcome. But I think our guys are in a good place to go over there and play a ballgame.”
Last week, Ruston completely dominated the Ouachita Lions, scoring all 49 points in the first half to win 49-7. West Monroe went down to ASH last week and got a solid road win over the Trojans 31-21. The lone Rebel loss of the season was against Zachary in week five by a final score of 48-7.
Since both teams enter tonight undefeated in District 2-5A, there will be no sharing of the district crown: it’s a winner-take-all scenario.
“That is one of our goals this season,” Baugh said about repeated as district champions. “It’s what our kids set their sights on, as they are on the way to trying to do bigger things. But it’s a really great opportunity for them, and I think they want to take advantage of it.”
Junior Jordan Hayes leads Ruston’s rushing attack with 996 yards total and 12 touchdowns on 158 attempts. Junior Josh Brantley has thrown five touchdowns on the year, while rushing for seven more.
The Rebels will start Hayden Federico at quarterback, who Ruston did not get the chance to see back in the jamboree.
And while West Monroe will likely have the home stands full, expect a great showing from the traveling Ruston crowd, as well.
“Our people have traveled really well, regardless of how far we’ve gone,” Baugh said. “I certainly expect we’ll have a great crowd for the district championship. And, you know, a lot of people do build up the West Monroe game, and I also think they want to see where we are going into the playoffs. I think it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
“But it’s like I told our kids: if they go out and play well in all three phases of the game, I think we’ll be fine. We’ll get a chance to win the ballgame also.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and can be streamed live on BearcatNationNetwork.com for free. The game can be listened to on Z107.5FM.