Seven decades in the making, the undefeated De La Salle Cavaliers stand on the cusp of achieving high school football immortality.
Standing in their way are the formidable and equally undefeated University High Cubs.
Top-seeded De La Salle (11-0) seeks its first state championship when it faces No. 2 seed University (12-0) in the Division II final of the Sugar Bowl LHSAA Prep Classic scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
De La Salle is making just its second appearance in a state final and first since 1961 while attempting to complete the first undefeated season in school history. The Cavaliers can also establish a single-season record for victories by a program that kicked off in 1950.
Though not lacking for confidence, as evidenced by a season in which the Cavaliers began and ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Class 3A state poll, even coach Ryan Manale acknowledged the enormous nature of this final prize.
“We’re in uncharted waters,’’ he said.
But this also marks a second straight season in which De La Salle has advanced to the playoffs undefeated and top-seeded in Division II. Last year’s team was De La Salle’s first to open 11-0 and earn a No. 1 seed before a 34-14 loss to No. 5 Parkview Baptist broke the Cavaliers’ hearts in the semifinals.
De La Salle’s consecutive 11-win seasons match the victory total established by the 1961 Cavaliers. That team, coached by Buck Seeber, reached the Class 3A final before a 20-7 loss to Istrouma in New Orleans ended an 11-2 run by the then-Catholic League champions in what was the state’s highest classification.
Nineteen seniors and 12 starters return last year’s De La Salle team, led by linchpin quarterback Julien Gums, junior tailback Kendall Collins Jr., all-state defensive tackle Jamiran James and safety Lance Robinson. Gums (Nicholls State), James (Tulane) and Robinson (Kansas State) are all college commitments.
“It’s been a journey,’’ said Manale, 38, who is completing his sixth season. “We’ve played a tough, grueling schedule and came out of it just fine. Those 19 seniors have really impacted our program. It’s almost like they’re my own sons. I’ve been with them since they were eighth-graders. It’s going to be very tough to lose those guys.’’
Less tough, though, if victorious.
U-High, a three-time state champion and most recently in 2014, is expected to have plenty to say about that. The Cubs are making their third trip to the finals in five years.
Coached by Chad Mahaffey, the Cubs have run roughshod through a schedule that includes three teams, Zachary, Catholic of Baton Rouge and West Feliciana, playing for state championships this weekend. Zachary, a 5A finalist, was the only team to come within three touchdowns of the Cubs during a 26-7 decision.
Running back Michael Hollins, quarterback John Gordon McKernan and wide receiver Christian Harris are U-High’s offensive catalysts. Hollins has rushed for 1,439 yards and 29 touchdowns while McKernan has passed for 1,908 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions with Harris catching 35 passes good for 642 yards and seven scores.
“They’re a well-oiled machine in all three phases and we hope we are the same from the schedule we played ... and that it prepared us for this moment physically,’’ Manale said. “They’ve beaten three teams that are playing for state championships and yet to play a game into the fourth quarter.’’
The Cubs defeated No. 3 St. Charles Catholic 34-14 in the semifinals two weeks ago and No. 7 Teurlings Catholic 35-9 in the quarterfinals.
De La Salle can counter with a regular-season schedule that included victories against St. Augustine, Karr, Riverside and St. Charles Catholic. Karr is a reigning Class 4A state champion seeking a repeat on Saturday.
St. Charles was a Division II semifinalist, Riverside a Division III semifinalist and St. Augustine a Division I quarterfinalist.
The Cavaliers defeated reigning Division II state champion and No. 4 seed St. Thomas More 28-14 in the semifinals and No. 8 Hannan 52-14 in the quarterfinals.
Gums has accounted for 2,237 yards and 27 touchdowns with his running (1,141 yards) and passing (1,096 yards, 12 TDs), followed by Collins (981 yards) and wide receivers Aaron Marquez (510 yards) and B.J. Randle (429 yards).
But will it be enough to write history against the Cubs?
“We’re excited and can’t wait for Friday,’’ Manale said. “It’s going to be a heck of a challenge. It’s all about focusing, focusing, focusing and staying humble. Not listening to social media and everybody telling (us) how great (we) are.
“We are a very good football team. But we have to stay humble and we have to stay hungry if we want to meet the ultimate goal and go out with this senior class on top.’’