The notion of hitting .400 holds a natural appeal for a former baseball coach like Jim Hightower. There is a different kind of 400 on the horizon for the St. Thomas More football coach.
The 69-year-old Hightower seeks his 400th career win when the top-ranked Cougars of Class 4A travel to play 5A Catholic High (2-1) Friday night at Olympia Stadium in Baton Rouge. Game time is 7 p.m.
“That I would coach this many games or have the chance to win so many. … That’s not something I never even dreamed about,” Hightower said. “I feel fortunate and blessed to be able to be in this position. This is a big game for other reasons.
"Catholic High is a very good team and a good program that we know from playing them over the years. If we don’t win it, this will carry over to the next week. It will happen when it happens.”
Hightower enters the game with a 399-122-1 record that ranks second all time among Louisiana high school football coaches. Only John Curtis’ J.T. Curtis (560-63-6) has more career wins.
The Cougars are coming off their first LHSAA title. They defeated Parkview Baptist 54-29 to win the Division II select title in December. It was the second LHSAA title for Hightower, who won the Class 1A title as head coach at Catholic-Pointe Coupee in 1978.
A California native, Hightower was a two-sport athlete at Cal-Davis before coming to LSU as a graduate assistant baseball coach in 1971. Hightower’s parents were both from Louisiana. His mother was a Baton Rouge native.
Hightower’s teams have played Baton Rouge area teams off and on since he moved to STM in the 1980s. The Bears, who are coming off a 34-6 loss to Class 3A No. 3 University High, are the second straight Baton Rouge opponent for the Cougars. St. Thomas More shut out fifth-ranked Plaquemine 35-0 last week in Lafayette. The Cougars have shut out their three opponents by a combined total of 129-0. Turnovers played a role in last week’s game.
“We played extremely well last week,” Hightower said. “In fact, we played so well I’m a little concerned. It is hard to maintain that level of play two straight weeks. We knew we had an experienced group on defense, and they’ve led us. Our offense isn’t as quick-strike as people are used to seeing. The defense has forced turnovers, and when the offense is in short-field situations, they’ve responded.”
The STM series with Catholic is a notable one, but enters a new chapter following back-to-back CHS wins. Longtime Catholic coach Dale Weiner, an assistant to Hightower at CHSPC, retired from coaching last December with 317 career wins.
Gabe Fertitta, a former CHS assistant, is in his first year head coach for the Bears. Catholic had turnover issues in the loss to a U-High, a team Hightower said is the favorite to win this year’s Division II title.
“Coach Hightower is a great coach and person. I’ve met him and talked with him several times,” Fertitta said. “It’s kind of daunting in a way. I’m on what, win No. 18. They’ve lost to us the last two years, they've got a shutout streak and their coach is going for No. 400. I told our team Sunday those guys have three big reasons to come out with their hair on fire ready to play.”