Notre Dame hosts De La Salle in 3A playoff opener

CROWLEY – As the top seed in last year’s playoffs, Notre Dame faced one of the toughest series of opponents the program has seen. The bracket makers appear to have once again challenged the Pios with a No. 6 seed that offers no favors.

Notre Dame has drawn No. 27 DeLaSalle of New Orleans, the runnersup in District 10-3A and what looks like another potentially tough round one matchup. With a win, Notre Dame could be headed to a second round game against No. 11 Parkview Baptist.

“It does seem to be a little stacked at the bottom of the bracket, but you have to face them at some point in time whether it is week two, three or four,” said ND coach Lewis Cook. “The goal was to make the playoffs and try to get up where we had a home game. I was a little surprised we got up that high, but I’m just glad we’re playing.”

DeLaSalle finished 5-4 overall, losing 20-7 to eventual league champ McMain before closing the season with three explosive wins. The Cavs put up a lot of points in wins over district opponents McDonough (44-6), Lusher (43-22) and Sarah Reed (50-14).

“The week I worry about the most is always the first week,” says Cook. “It’s kind of like starting over and you’re anxious to see how things are going to go. I’ve noticed there are usually more upsets in week one because it’s like a new season again.”

DeLaSalle has had most of its success on the ground behind a pair of sophomore running backs that have combined for over 2,400 yards. The Cavaliers have only attempted 54 passes this season so Cook says the Pios will focus on the ground game.

“They haven’t been throwing a lot, so we need to beat them to the punch and force them into throwing the ball. They are pretty big up front and have good backs, so we really need to be able to stop the run.”

Anthony Thomas (6-0, 160) gained 146 yards on 18 carries against Sarah Reed last week and has rushed for just over 1,000 yards with 16 touchdowns this season. Jarmal Howell (5-8, 160) has added 625 yards and five scores while averaging over eight yards a carry and had 124 yards on 15 runs last week.

“They are pretty big up front on defense, too, but teams have moved the ball on them,” adds Cook. “The key for us will be to finish drives and put some points on the board. If we can do that and take them out of their game, then we’ll have a chance to play our game, control the ball and hopefully move on.”

For Notre Dame, this football season defines the label “work in progress” and there is good argument that the 2011 Pios have taken the process to new heights.

“I think they realized it was going to take a better effort on the practice field and that maybe they thought it was going to come a little easier to them because of what we had been through over the years,” said Cook. “We didn’t develop a personality until week six against Jennings. We kind of came together in that game, the offense got cranked up again and we realized we were a team. It gave them their confidence back.”

After seeing a four-year regular season win streak come to an end at Breaux Bridge, Notre Dame rallied for a win over Teurlings to stand 2-1. But consecutive losses for the first time under Cook left the Pios reeling on the verge of district play.

“I told our guys at the pep rally last week how proud I was of them for the way they picked it up and turned things around,” said Cook. “We probably got a little bit spoiled and we realized we had to do things a little bit differently. We had a lot of young players that were still learning and we couldn’t rely on them to pick up things like some of our past teams that were a lot more mature.”

The Pios prevailed in that shootout with Jennings and proceeded to run the table for the District 4-3A championship. Five consecutive wins against what every coach in the league agrees is the toughest 3A district in the state may be just the boost Cook needed for his team as they head into the playoffs.

“We have never been in a district that was top to bottom this balanced, added Cook.” “In the last four or five years, how many district games were over at the half, or at least middle of the third quarter? Playing as we have had to the last five games to fight that kind of competition has made us more battle tested and that has to help us down the line. It won’t be easy, but we’ll see if we have enough juice to rally and make a run.”

A lot of things have factored into the Notre Dame turnaround and they all seem to be the direct result of what Cook has called a growing up on both sides of the ball. The defense again looks like a typical Pios show stopper and the offensive line has settled in to rejuvenate the running game and that makes everything else work on offense.

Luke Broussard has rushed for 930 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging seven yards a carry. Nick Gossen, who missed two games, has 769 yards and six touchdowns. As a team, the Pios have gained over 2,000 yards on the ground and that success has also sparked the passing game.

Quarterback Waylon Young has thrown for over a thousand yards and 10 touchdowns. His leading targets are Josef Schmid with 32 catches for 486 yards and five touchdowns and Blake Miller with 13 catches for 304 yards and three scores. Brandon Sonnier and Jackson Landry have each added TD catches from the tight end spot.

The biggest Pios weapon, though, seems to have remained concealed to most for ten weeks. When Luke Broussard gained 21 yards around right end to set up a touchdown last Friday, it was fullback Austin Thibodeaux that blocked on the Knights end and drove him eight yards backward into the linebacker, taking out two defenders and opening the way. When Nick Gossen slashed off the left edge for a 22-yard TD run, he broke off a lead block from Thibodeaux, who pushed the linebacker 12 yards down the field.

You may not read Thibodeaux’s name in the box score that often. The junior has gained 281 yards, averaging six yards every time he carries the ball. But what Thibodeuax does, goes unnoticed to most.

“I love to block, knowing that you’re helping create a lot of big runs is a good feeling,” says Thibodeaux. “It’s great to carry the ball and pick up a few yards when they call on me to run it, but it’s just as satisfying to see us have success in the running game as a team and know I am a part of that in my own way.”

Thibodeaux has been crushing opponents with blocks all season. His efforts are certainly not lost on his teammates or his coach.

“He is 220 pounds and can run, has a great attitude and he wants to be a good player,” said Cook. “Austin has worked real hard and you can see every week he has gotten better and learned to play the game and we hope he continues to develop. It’s a big advantage for us to have a guy that has that kind of ability in a big body and he doesn’t mind hitting people.”

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