Moments after his team lost a one-point game to Kentwood in 2016, St. Helena coach Brandon Brown got a boost of confidence from an unexpected source.
“Coach (Jonathan) Foster told me I needed to get ready to play for a championship,” Brown said. “He told me he thought we could win two state titles. We made it to the semifinals last year, and now we're in the finals.”
The two schools play in different classifications and are located in adjoining parishes a few miles apart along the Interstate 55 corridor. Their bond has been closer since that night. Now things move to highest level — the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic this week.
“I could see the potential in St. Helena,” Kentwood coach Jonathan Foster said. “They had everything it takes. They’ve got the size, the speed and they’re well-coached. Our kids do all know each other, so it is special that we both get to play for titles. The only thing better would be if we could play on the same day.”
Third-seeded Kentwood (13-1) meets top-seeded West St. John (10-2) in the Class 1A final that opens the three-day LHSAA event at noon Thursday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sixth-seeded St. Helena (12-2) plays top-seeded Welsh (12-1) in the 2A final at noon Friday.
The tone for the games changed when St. Helena’s running back/linebacker Aaron Hurst suffered a neck injury in the Hawks semifinal win over Ferriday on Friday. Hurst had surgery Saturday at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and amazingly took his first steps, with some help, on Sunday.
“Aaron and I … we played for each other,” said St. Helena defensive back/receiver Troy Hurst, a Memphis commitment and Aaron Hurst’s cousin. “He was more into academics, but he played because I did and he wanted to be part of this. We want to win it for him. We want both teams to win. We were pulling for Amite too, but we had to play them in the quarterfinals.”
Kentwood seeks its second Class 1A title in three years. The Kangaroos have eight state titles and five runner-up finishes. St. Helena makes its second title-game appearance.
There are three other notable connections. St. Helena lost to West St. John in its other final appearance in 2004. The coach of the that St. Helena team was former Amite and current East St. John coach Alden Foster, a cousin of Jonathan Foster.
Brown is a former East St. John player who played at Alcorn then started his coaching career in Columbus, Mississippi. He came to St. Helena five years ago with a five-year plan. The Hawks have grown back into 2A power as they moved to a new school complex in Greensburg two years ago.
“When I took the job, I knew about this class,” Brown said. “They were in junior high, but everyone knew they were strong athletically and academically. Things fell into place.”
Brown credits Foster for being a mentor to him, calling to remind him of things do with the LHSAA early Monday.
On the flip side of the equation, Foster speaks eloquently about the Kentwood tradition. He spent 14 years as an assistant to David Currier, after being a star player for Currier’s brother, Donald, at Amite and then at Louisiana-Monroe.
“It is honor to coach a program like Kentwood,” Foster said. “There is so much tradition and support. So many of these guys have relatives who played on championship teams, so expectations are high.”
Foster cautions those who compare this KHS team to the 2015 team led by current Alabama defensive back Shyheim Carter. Receiver Trey Palmer helps lead KHS.
“We don’t have a Shyheim, but what we do have is a group of guys who make plays,” Foster said. “Because we’re more balanced, you can’t focus on one guy.”
Two-way KHS lineman Eric Dunn agrees.
“Blocking for our team is fun because we have guys who make plays,” Dunn said. “West St. John is a lot like us. They’re big and fast, too. I like the matchup.”