The word “special” kept coming up after the St. Thomas More football team crushed De La Salle 58-10 to win Friday’s Division II state championship, and it wasn’t strictly in the way a team uses it after accomplishing its biggest goal.
Because this wasn’t an ordinary state final. In fact, a night like this hadn’t happened since 1980.
That was the last time a football state championship game was played on a school’s campus. Since then, every final has been played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, with the exception of the 2005 championship games played at Independence Stadium in Shreveport in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A series of bylaws passed at the LHSAA annual convention last January allowed for the higher-seeded team in a select state final to host the championship game. The Cougars had plans, assuming they reached the state championship game, to play at Cajun Field with other Acadiana-area finalists. But losses by other highly-seeded local teams caused them to reconsider.
Instead, STM decided to entertain De La Salle at Cougar Stadium, and the school pulled out all the stops. Aside from its usual fanfare for home games, STM added bleachers for extra seating, set off fireworks throughout and even had a helicopter drop off both teams’ mascots right before kickoff.
“If it’s not going to be at the Dome, I’d rather it be here,” STM quarter Caleb Holstein said. “What our parents did to make it special for us was awesome.”
Since the game was played at home, senior wide receiver Jacob Trahan noted the normalcy of the Cougars’ pregame routine leading up to the state championship.
“We got half day (of school) today. That was about the only thing that wasn’t normal,” Trahan said. “But we got here at a normal time — normal pregame meal. It’s the same thing we do every single week, so it makes it a lot easier for us not having to travel. We practice on this field every day, so it’s a big deal for us.”
On the field, the Cougars flew as high as a helicopter and shined as bright as fireworks. After losing a high-scoring affair to nationally ranked University High in last year’s Division II final, STM played like a team with a point to prove.
The Cougars scored on six of their seven first-half possessions, including five touchdowns, to take a 37-3 lead into halftime.
“They never get old. They’re all good,” said STM coach Jim Hightower, whose first of three state championships came on Catholic-Pointe Coupee’s campus in 1978 when he was the Hornets coach. “This one was really special having it here at home. I thought the fans, the boosters, the administration, (athletic director) Kim Broussard, they did a super job of preparing this stadium, making it a venue worthy of a state championship.”
Holstein, the program’s all-time leading passer, threw for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone.
Three of those first-half passing scores went to Jack Bech, the program’s single-season receiving leader, including a spectacular 28-yard diving reception.
Bech was, by far, the best player on the field. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound junior accounted for more than 200 all-purpose yards, including 10 catches for 186 yards. His first touch of the second half was an electrifying 68-yard punt return for a touchdown.
"I think tonight he was extra special," Hightower said Bech. "He just did a super job."
But Bech’s favorite score was the final play of the first half, a 35-yard Hail Mary.
“Me and Caleb, we’ve worked a lot,” Bech said. “Me and (junior backup quarterback Walker Howard) have worked a lot, too. But me and Caleb and me and Walker, we have this special connection, so I knew he was going to be tossing it up to me. So whenever I saw the ball in there, I knew I had to just go up and get it and solidify the win.”
Bech was so good Friday that as Holstein accepted the Most Outstanding Player award after the game, he repeatedly said the honor should have gone to his favorite target.
“Jack was a huge deal,” said Holstein, who is committed to Havard. “He came up with the big plays when we needed them. Especially at the end of the half, he had that crazy catch. He’s an insane athlete. We’ve put the ball in hands all year, and he produces.”
Bech disagreed with his quarterback.
“No, that’s all him,” Bech said of the Most Outstanding Player trophy. “Everything he’s done, that’s for sure him — all him.”
Considering he came off the field at the end of the third quarter to a standing ovation, this night seemed to belong to Holstein, who finishes his high school career with 9,511 yards and 106 touchdowns.
“That was really special to be able to do that,” Hightower said of Holstein’s send-off. “He’s such a good young man. His character is better than his arm. He’s just a super leader on this team. He’s very humble. He doesn’t like to get any attention on himself. He shares it all with his teammates. He’s just a super young man.”