YOUNGSVILLE — Ascension Episcopal answered St. Mary’s challenges most of the night, but at the end the Blue Gators had no answer for Aaron Howell and Ryan Cunningham.
Howell threw for five touchdowns and ran for a sixth, Cunningham had three scoring receptions among his 10 catches, and that was enough for the visiting Tigers to hold on for a 49-42 win over the top-seeded Gators in Friday’s Division IV select semifinals.
Howell and Cunningham hooked up for two scores in a four-minute period spanning the third and fourth quarters, those scores snapping a 28-all tie and one of three AES turnovers coming in between that helped the fourth-seeded Tigers (13-0) hold on and advance to Friday’s 10 a.m. final against Southern Lab.
St. Mary (13-0), the No. 4 seed in the Division IV bracket, scored on six of its last seven possessions in what turned into a second-half shootout after the teams were tied at 7 after one quarter and 14-14 at halftime.
“We knew it would be tough,” said Tigers coach Lee Doty. “I thought that us getting here (to the semifinals) last year would help us, but it was a battle. That (AES) is a very well-coached team, and they’ve got some great athletes.”
It was Howell who had the biggest plays, though. The sophomore finished with 300 yards passing on 22-of-34 throws and was 11-of-15 in the second half. He also had the game-clinching touchdown with a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 2:40 left that gave the Tigers a 49-35 lead, part of his team-leading 92 rushing yards.
“Players are going to make plays,” Doty said, “and those guys did it.”
The Gators came right back after the late score, with quarterback and Louisiana-Lafayette commitment Jake Arceneaux engineering a quick 65-yard drive and hitting Ronald LeBlanc with a 39-yard scoring pass with 1:45 left. But AES’ onside kick was recovered by St. Mary’s Nick Miller, and the Tigers were able to run out the clock.
“We made a couple of key mistakes, and they capitalized,” said Gators coach Mike Desormeaux, whose team was making its first semifinal appearance. “We had opportunities, and we just didn’t finish.”
Three of those miscues came in the third quarter, one on the second play of the period, when an Arceneaux pass bounced off the hands of a diving Zach Ronquillo and into the hands of Tigers’ Slade Bienvenu. Howell hit Donovan Ohnoutka for a 30-yard touchdown on the next play.
Running back Ja’Ceiry Linzer fumbled twice in that same quarter, the second one coming in between Howell’s scoring tosses of 30 and 8 yards to Cunningham. The second one made it 41-2, and AES never got closer than six the rest of the way.
Cunningham also had a 5-yard scoring catch nine seconds before halftime to tie the game at 14, after Arceneaux had put up two scores to give the Gators the early advantage. His 94-yard run on a read option gave AES a 7-0 lead four minutes into the game, and after Howell hit Garrett Vienne with a 4-yard tying touchdown, Arceneaux found Ronquillo with a 20-yard pass on the back line of the end zone to make it 14-7 early in the second quarter.
Arceneaux finished with 202 rushing yards to go with his 11-of-23, 144-yard, two-touchdown pass performance, and his 64-yard scramble set up Linzer’s 21-yard scoring run with 8:09 left in the third quarter that tied it at 20. But Howell had three completions in the ensuing drive and Josh Hickman finished that with a one-yard burst.
AES only took three plays to get an equalizer, with a deep Arceneaux completion to Jake Vascocu setting up a 9-yard Linzer run, but a surprise onside kick came up short and St. Mary’s scored in four plays on Howell’s 30-yarder to Cunningham.
“We gave up a couple of possessions,” Desormeaux said. “A couple of decisions I wish we could take back. But (St. Mary’s) made the plays, give them credit.”