Throughout his many years and many stops in coaching, Nick Saltaformaggio has seen his share of big rivalry games: Jesuit vs. Holy Cross, Holy Cross vs. Chalmette, East Jefferson vs. Bonnabel.
But never, he said, has he seen one like that taking place Friday night in St. Charles Parish. It’s the 62nd meeting between the Hahnville Tigers and the Destrehan Wildcats in a rivalry like few others. It’s a cross-river, intraparish battle that pits east bank against west bank, co-worker against co-worker and, sometimes, family member against family member.
It’s often accompanied by a good deal of trash talk, a little bit of wagering and a lot of toilet papering of neighborhoods. The game also has been designated as part of the Great American Rivalry Series Top 100 must-see matchups.
Destrehan leads the series 36-22-4 and won last year’s game 49-0 after having lost the previous four years.
“This is astronomical,” said the first-year Hahnville coach. “Those games involved the schools. This is the whole parish.”
“I tried to warn him,” said Destrehan coach Stephen Robicheaux, who has seen 12 of these “big games” come and go as the Wildcats’ coach, and whose school is hosting this year’s battle. “At least he doesn’t have to host it for his first time.”
It’s Destrehan, the undefeated No. 2 team in Class 5A and in The New Orleans Advocate’s Large Schools Super 10, vs. Hahnville, which is 2-2, in a District 7-5A showdown. The Tigers fell out of the statewide polls this week after losing to undefeated and unranked Thibodaux but are still ranked No. 4 in The Advocate’s Super 10.
And both teams have taken different paths to get here.
At Destrehan this season, all Robicheaux and his staff had to do was find a suitable replacement for all-state quarterback Donovan Isom, who graduated and headed off to Utah after passing for more than 2,600 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. After some deliberation, the job went to sophomore Marquise Darensbourg, who still is settling into the role. In four games, Darensbourg is 30 of 52 for 388 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
But he hasn’t had to carry this year’s load all alone. Darensbourg has a stellar supporting cast surrounding him, including senior running back Will Matthews, who has rushed for 333 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I think (Darensbourg) is still learning, obviously,” Robicheaux said. “With not a lot of experience last year, every game is another game of experience under his belt. The good thing for us right now is the way we’re running the football. If we can continue to do that, and keep the pressure off of him having to make those plays, I think eventually we’ll be at that point where he’ll be fine.”
Hahnville, meanwhile has faced some bumps in the road. After an impressive 42-12 jamboree win over Southern Lab and a 35-14 win over Salmen, both showcasing first-year quarterback Mike Neal and Saltaformaggio’s triple option offense, things got tough for the Tigers. They took a heart-breaking triple-overtime loss to No. 1-ranked Rummel. Then they took a triple-overtime win against Class 4A No. 3 Landry-Walker. But they lost Neal to a broken collarbone. Last week’s loss to Thibodaux, which hinged on a missed field goal in the game’s final seconds, hurt the most, Saltaformaggio said.
“We took a step back last week against a good football team,” Saltaformaggio said. “If we play as good as we played the first three weeks of the season, we have a chance to win.”
Saltaformaggio said he’s not using anything as an excuse for his team.
“Some coaches will sit back and say, ‘Well, we played two triple overtime games, one against the No. 1 team in (Class) 5A and one against the No. 2 team in (Class) 4A and we lost our starting quarterback,’ ” he said. “But if you’re a good football coach, it’s about your program. And for me, it’s always going to be about my program. So we’re not going to sit there and make excuses for the fact that we didn’t play well on Friday night.”
Both coaches know their players will have to play their best Friday. Things like records and trends tend to be meaningless in big rivalry games that ride on emotion — like this one.
“I respect the game, I respect the tradition, I’m excited to be coaching in it,” Saltaformaggio said. “But we’re not going to win the state championship Friday night.”