West St. John coach Brandon Walters said Thursday's Class 1A state championship game may have taken a few years off of his life, but the reward was worth it.
After stalling on what they thought would be the final possession of the game, the Rams led 20-14 but were forced to punt the ball back to Kentwood with 1:30 remaining.
With 13 seconds remaining, Kentwood had third-and-7 at the Rams 36-yard line when West St. John’s D’Kyri Jackson intercepted a desperation pass by Kangaroos quarterback Larenz Morris at the goal line to seal the win and begin a raucous celebration on the Rams’ sideline.
Walters said his defensive players asked for the chance to win the game.
(They said) ’Coach, we’re going to punt the ball and play defense,’ ” Walters recounted. “I’m like, ‘Hold on, man.’ They asked me to give it back to them. ‘Coach, one more stop. Coach, we got this.’ ”
They did because they had it most of the day.
With a stifling defense that nabbed four interceptions, earned its sixth state at the Allstate Sugar Bowl LHSAA Prep Classic, its first since 2004.
West St. John, which was the No. 1 seed, finished the season 12-2 with nine consecutive wins, during which it outscored its opponents 383-53. Kentwood, the No. 3 seed, finished 11-2.
Walters said he spent some worrisome minutes on the sideline at the end.
“It’s definitely a gut check thing, a heart-check thing,” he said. “I’m glad the guys stood up. We did what they asked me to do, and we’re champions now. Those games, they check your heart. It’s amazing for the fans, but it’s tough being on the sideline and going through it.”
Jackson’s interception was the Rams' fourth. Niko Roy (formerly Niko Davis) had the first one, stopping No. 3 Kentwood’s first drive with a 30-yard return to the Kangaroos’ 4. Three plays later, Kylan Duhe ran around the right end for a 3-yard touchdown just 1:36 into the game.
Covan Barnes had the second interception, which he returned for a 46-yard touchdown with 8:15 remaining in the first half to give the Rams a 13-7 lead. Trenton Grow intercepted Morris in the end zone with 2:01 remaining in the game, then Jackson sealed it with his.
“Our guys came to play,” Walters said.
Morris, who was named Outstanding Player for Kentwood, finished with 102 yards passing was 8-of 26. He also rushed for 100 yards. He threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Radarrian Robbins to tie the game at 7 with 10:50 remaining in the first half. He connected with Trey Palmer for a 16-yard touchdown with 5:13 remaining in the third quarter.
The Kangaroos had a pretty solid defense as well. West St. John quarterback D’Andre Gaudia was 1-of-6 for 21 yards with one interception. But the Rams rushed for 203 yards.
Duhe was the workhorse, rushing for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. He earned West St. John’s Outstanding Player Award.
Kentwood coach Jonathan Foster said his team just made too many mistakes. Besides the turnovers, the Kangaroos had 18 penalties for 95 yards, including a slew of offside and illegal procedure calls.
“We were just too sloppy,” Foster said. "All the small things, the offsides, then the holding. That all hurt us."
Walters, who was a West St. John assistant coach in 2007 and 2011 when the Rams finished as state runners-up and is surrounded by former players who have rings, finally got his first as a head coach.
“It’s special,” he said. “I’m glad for the opportunity for these guys.