Just eight points separated St. Amant from an undefeated regular season in 2013.
Unfortunately for the Gators, those eight points made the difference between a 10-0 campaign — complete with a Division 5-5A title — and a 6-4 season earmarked by missed opportunities and last-second defeats.
St. Amant began the season with a two-point loss to Warren Easton, but after reeling off six straight victories, the setback seemed like a minor stumble in the Gators’ rear-view mirror. Instead, it was an ominous foreshadowing of things to come.
It started in Week 8 with a hard-fought 28-27 defeat against Woodlawn-Baton Rouge. St. Amant mounted a late rally at East Ascension the following week, but ultimately came up two points short.
The season finale against Dutchtown offered a shot at redemption, and with St. Amant holding a 24-17 lead in the game’s final minute, the Gators were primed to pull the rug out from underneath their cross-parish foe. But the Griffins tied the game in the final seconds of regulation, and five back-and-forth overtimes later, the Gators had to watch their bitter rivals celebrate a share of the Division 5-5A title on their home field.
A trio of pivotal district games lost by a grand total of six points. It’s only natural such a stretch can emotionally grind a young team, and seven days later, the Gators’ season ended with a first-round exit from the state playoffs in a 19-7 defeat against East St. John.
St. Amant coach David Oliver knows his team must do a better job closing out games in 2014, but has no plans to dramatically alter the way he coaches late in games. And as practice revved up this week, Oliver decided to focus his troops’ attention on the positives.
“When you look at the film from last year, the plays were there to be made, we just didn’t make them,” Oliver said. “Some of the time that’s a maturity issue. You can always look back at a game and find two or three plays you want to have back, that’s never going to change. We believe in our plan, we believe in our scheme and we believe in our players.”
Oliver has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Last year’s relatively inexperienced squad remained competitive throughout a brutal schedule, and a majority of the offensive playmakers responsible — headlined by quarterback Tyler Dixon and all-purpose weapon Marquise Hampton — are set to return in 2014 with another year of maturity under their belt.
The Gators did lose quality starters along the offensive line and across the defensive front seven. A talented group of rising underclassmen will be counted on to patch up the holes as well as replenish the depth, but Oliver is confident he has the pieces to complete the puzzle at his disposal.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but so does every team at this time of year,” Oliver said. “We have to figure out the depth chart in certain spots, but I think we have the right kids. It’s just a matter of us getting them in the right spot.”
On paper, the Gators have the talent and experience to at least equal their 6-4 record in the coming season. But if Oliver and company hope to beat that mark, they must do what so desperately eluded them down the stretch in 2013 — finish on top.
Divisional games tend to be hard-fought and often decided in the final minutes of regulation. Hence teams that struggle in such situations don’t tend to win many divisional titles.
James Moran covers sports for The Ascension Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.