The Hahnville High School Tigers are loose, relaxed and a confident football team.
Their coach? Not so much.
Coach Nick Saltaformaggio readily admits to being “nervous,’’ about Friday’s 7 p.m. pairing at Acadiana in the Class 5A semifinals. But for the man more often referred to as “Salt,’’ it's a positive anxiety.
The weight Saltaformaggio is carrying centers around his prized pupil, senior running back Anthony “Pooka’’ Williams, and the opportunity a victory against Acadiana presents.
“I believe in terms of the long run that we’ve kind of got the program fixed,’’ said Saltaformaggio, whose four seasons at Hahnville since leading East Jefferson to a Class 4A state championship in 2013 have produced two consecutive quarterfinals appearances, a second-round advance and now a trip to the final four.
“So this isn’t going to be a one-year wonder type of deal at Hahnville. So that makes me a little easy. But I’m never going to get another kid like Anthony, so in that respect I’m nervous. It’s like this guy has got to get us (to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome).’’
Williams and his teammates are seeking Hahnville’s first advance to the state final since 2003, and in Saltaformaggio’s mind a fitting culmination to Williams' brilliant schoolboy career.
A 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior, who once was a Kansas commitment but now is considering other schools, including LSU, Williams has rushed for 300-plus yards in all three of the Tigers’ playoff victories against No. 23 seed Denham Springs, No. 7 Ruston and No. 2 Covington while scoring 10 touchdowns.
Williams’ season totals — 253 carries, 2,695 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns, 10.7 yards per carry and 207.3 yards per game — are staggering.
“I almost realize what Cyril Crutchfield felt like when he had Leonard Fournette at St. Augustine,’’ Saltaformaggio said. “If anybody can relate to the pressure of having a kid like Fournette, I know how (Crutchfield) felt.
“We’ve got to get to the state championship game because this kid deserves to play in the Superdome. That is a huge pressure for me. I’m not going to kid anybody.’’
A six-time state champion in seven previous trips to the final, Hahnville (11-2) travels to Scott, riding a 10-game winning streak and owning a No. 10 seed in the Class 5A playoffs.
In defeating second-seeded Covington 38-27 last Friday in Boutte, Williams rushed 27 times for 353 yards and touchdowns of 35 and 29 yards and had scoring runs of 74 and 66 yards negated by holding penalties. Williams needs 39 rushing yards against Acadiana to reach 1,000 alone in the postseason.
“Even though they’re two completely different style of running backs, I think they’re generational type players,’’ Saltaformaggio said of Williams and Fournette, a first-round NFL draft pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars this year. “And people who do not go to Friday night prep football games will go to the state championship game. For prep football fans, he would put on a spectacular show in the Superdome.
“Now that doesn’t mean we would go there and beat either West Monroe or Zachary. But I do know that he would put on an unbelievable show.’’
To advance to the program’s eighth state final and face the winner between No. 1 West Monroe and No. 4 Zachary, the Tigers must best one of the state’s elite programs and Williams will be a driving force in that quest.
“He will have the ball in his hands,’’ Saltaformaggio said. “We’re not resting Pooka. We’re going to fire every bullet he’s got in his gun.’’
A four-time Class 5A state champion, Acadiana (12-1) enters on a five-game winning streak and carrying a No. 3 seed. The Rams’ last appearance in the final was three years ago in 2014 when the team defeated Destrehan 23-7 for a second consecutive state title.
Acadiana’s lone loss this season was a 38-28 decision against Sulphur in Week 7 in which the Rams squandered a 14-point halftime lead that forced them to share the District 3-5A championship with Sulphur and Barbe.
The Rams defeated No. 30 seed Comeaux 52-20 in the first round of the playoffs and then beat No. 14 and defending state champion Landry-Walker 24-22 in the second round before squeezing by No. 22 Live Oak 17-14 on the road in last week’s quarterfinals.
Running back Dillon Monette rushed for 280 yards on 22 carries for the Rams, who scored the game-winning points on a 59-yard halfback pass from Regrick Francis to Larryll Greene with 9:58 remaining.
“I think the biggest challenge for us (is) Acadiana,’’ Saltaformaggio said. “You’re playing a team that has been in the Dome, so they obviously know how to win late in the year.
“But I also believe that Hahnville is back where Hahnville belongs. We’re in the semifinals and we’ll be back there again in the not too distant future. I don’t like to talk about the future, but we’re on that roll call again.
“When you start talking about the top 5A teams in the state, we’re on that list with the Zacharys and West Monroes and the Acadianas and the Destrehans. Now you add Hahnville. That was the reason I wanted to get this job. ’’
So let the game begin.
“I really don’t think our kids are feeling that pressure at all,’’ Saltaformaggio said. “I really think it’s just me. I think we’re a confident football team. The one thing our kids know is that we are battle tested. We’re not going into this game backing into it. I don’t think they’ll be in awe. We just have to be able to handle the moment.’’