Given the school’s rich tradition, it can be difficult for any Notre Dame state championship team to distinguish itself from its predecessors.
This year’s version, though, has the opportunity to be regarded among the best should the Pioneers finish off a journey only three other teams have managed to do.
Not only is No. 3 Notre Dame (13-0) in pursuit of the school’s fifth state championship, but IT would be the fourth team to cap a perfect season when the Pioneers meet No. 1 Riverside Academy (11-1) in Friday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic.
Kickoff for the Division III crown at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
“This is another week where they know everything’s on the line,” said Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook Jr., who led the Pios to a pair of 15-0 finishes in 2000 and ’09. “This is what they started out to do. They’re going to do everything they can to finish it the way they would like to see it end. That’s all you can ask from them.”
Notre Dame’s been dominant during its run through the 2015 season, outscoring opponents by an average of 35 points per game.
The Pios have relied on staunch defensive play that’s resulted in eight shutouts and an average of 94.8 yards and 3.8 points per game.
“From a technical standpoint, Notre Dame is as good as any defense we’ve played this year,” Riverside coach Bill Stubbs said. “They are as good as advertised. They don’t make mistakes.”
Linebacker Patrick Burleigh leads the team with 76 tackles to go along with 7 tackles for loss and three sacks. Tackle Paul Guidry has 69 tackles, 16 TFLs, 17 quarterback hurries and five sacks, followed by linebacker Shea Zaunbrecher (64 tackles, 12 TFLs, nine sacks) and strong safety Hayden Bourgeois (63 tackles, 4 TFLs).
They’ll be tasked with slowing down Riverside’s spread attack that features plenty of athleticism at the skill positions.
“This team has more weapons than anybody we’ve seen,” Cook said. “That becomes a huge challenge because of their personnel.”
Because of early-season injuries Riverside’s rotated senior Herb McGee and sophomore Jared Butler at quarterback with both expected to see action, while 2014 starter Jordan Loving is available after being sidelined by a back injury.
Butler, who accounted for 255 yards and three TDs in last week’s 35-14 semifinal win over St. Charles, has completed 49 of 84 passes for 903 yards and seven TDs.
McGee, who has thrown for 724 yards and seven TDs, is also an excellent receiver with 26 catches for 301 yards and 3 TDs, while running back Brandon Sanders has carried 152 times for 1,070 yards and nine TDs.
Riverside, which opened with a 29-28 season-opening loss to John Ehret, is making its third trip to the Superdome, but first since 2000.
Cook, who is taking his seventh Notre Dame team in 18 years to a state final, said his team will have to try and mix it up offensively to combat Riverside’s aggressive defense.
Running back Gabe Petry leads a balanced running game averaging 250 yards with 95 carries for 547 yards and 3 TDs. Quarterback Joe Faulk has rushed 100 times for 514 yards and seven TDs, while completing 63 of 100 passes for 940 yards with 15 TDs and five interceptions.
Wide receiver Boedy Borill tops the Pios with 25 catches for 472 yards and 8 TDs.
“I like where we are,” Cook said. “It’s a matter of just executing and trying to give ourselves a chance.”