St. Thomas More coach Jim Hightower has long made it known that the pursuit of the school’s first trip to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was about the players that have played for him over his 30-year career, not fulfilling a personal objective.
Yet, after STM withstood its fiercest opponent — cross-town rival Teurlings Catholic in a tense 28-21 back-and-forth battle — even Hightower seemed relieved by the outcome.
“We finally got it done,” Hightower said.
This was STM’s fifth semifinal appearance, a round that in previous years, had brought about a certain amount of anguish for the program with four straight defeats.
That all changed when the Cougars, who led 20-14 at halftime, fended off one final challenge from the Rebels after a touchdown and onside kick when receiver-turned-defender Trevor Begue had an interception on fourth down.
No. 2 STM (11-2) will meet No. 5 Parkview Baptist (9-3) in the Division II state championship game at 5 p.m. Friday.
“I still don’t know how to really put it in perspective,” Hightower said. “All those (previous semifinal) teams were different and played different opponents. In almost every one of those games, we laid it on the line. In some we made a few too many mistakes.”
STM will have company from the Acadiana area at the Superdome when No. 3 Notre Dame (13-0) tries to put the finishing touches on a perfect season with the Pioneers meeting No. 1 Riverside Academy (11-1) at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
“I know it’s going to be tough,” Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook said. “The guys have responded to all the challenges.”
Cook will take his sixth Notre Dame team to the Superdome and first since 2012 after a 33-0 Division III semifinal win over previously undefeated St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Pios, who have won four state titles, are in search of their first state crown since 2009.
“I’m happy for this group because of the way they are and how they go about doing their work,” Cook said. “I’m glad they’re the ones getting this opportunity to maybe win a state championship.”
Not only did STM have to repel a determined effort from Teurlings, but the Cougars were also looking for redemption after a 42-28 loss to the Rebels more than a month ago in a District 4-4A encounter.
Quarterback William Bellamy responded with a solid effort, completing 16 of 24 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Begue led the receivers with five catches for 140 yards.
The game was tied at 7 and 14 in the second quarter, when running back Evan Trahan gave STM a 20-14 lead with a 2-yard run with less than 30 seconds left before halftime. The score was set up by a 90-yard kickoff return from Chris Primeaux.
“Teurlings has a fine club and played very hard,” Hightower said. “Cole (Kelley) was a warrior. You have to respect them and what they’ve accomplished. For us to come out ahead against an opponent like them is satisfying just knowing what it took.”
Trahan helped STM extend its lead to 28-14, capping the Cougars first drive of the third quarter.
Teurlings (9-4) closed to within the final score on a 4-yard run by Kelley, who completed 24 of 45 passes for 317 yards and an interception.
The Rebels recovered the ensuing onside kick but Begue’s interception punched the Cougars’ ticket for New Orleans.
“I saw alumni from the past 30 years, and they were out in force and very proud of this group,” Hightower said. “I think our guys knew they were representing a lot of former Cougars on the field. If they didn’t know that going in, they knew it afterward.”