De La Salle returns to the top _lowres

Advocate file photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- De La Salle's Da'Vante Lebranch sacks Grace King High School quarterback Anthony Marino during the Cavaliers' season-opening, 50-12 win in September at Pan American Stadium.

It was a time of firsts. But it was, near the corner of St. Charles and Jefferson avenues, also a time of lasts.

Richard Nixon was serving his first months as president, Neil Armstrong had just taken mankind’s first steps on the moon, and a new band named Led Zeppelin had just released its second hit albums.

It was also October 1969 when a New York baseball player, soon-to-be-New Orleans-transplant, Ron Swoboda made a diving catch that broke the hearts of Baltimore Orioles’ fans, helping launch the Miracle Mets to a 4-1 victory, their first in a World Series.

It was, as chronicled by New Orleans prep football historian and New Orleans Advocate contributor Ron Brocato, “Although no one knew it at the time . . . 1969 was to be De La Salle’s last hurrah as a state power.

“That year the Cavaliers, coached by Joe Raitano, swept (their) Catholic League rivals,” Brocato wrote. “The Cavs ... made it as far as the semifinals, where they fell to LaGrange, 21-0.”

De La Salle’s football team began that season 5-1. It is not lost on current coach Ryan Manale that his 4-1 Cavaliers can match that accomplishment when they meet McMain, also 4-1, in a key District 11 3-A game Friday night at Joe Brown.

The 1984 team also reached that mark, starting the season 6-1 before losing its final three games and not reaching the playoffs.

“We are aware of where we are and our entire program is humbled to think we have that opportunity,” Manale said. “It won’t be easy. McMain is a really good football team.”

Manale’s Cavaliers are not football chopped liver. They have finally returned to a spot among prep power players, cracking the LSWA 3A football Top 10 poll for the first time this week since, well, no one can recall. De La Salle is No. 10.

In his third year at De La Salle, Manale was an offensive lineman and line coach under Jay Roth at Rummel.

However, it is De La Salle’s defense, anchored by 14-year-old nose guard Jamirau James, a 6-foot-1, 265-pounder, that is making news.

The Cavs have not allowed a touchdown in their past nine quarters.

The 1969 Cavs were anchored by future LSU star Tyler Lafauci, an all-state nose guard and offensive guard. Lafauci was the first and last player in the history of the state to make all-state first team on both offense and defense.

Unlike Lafauci, Manale dabbles in defense, concentrates on offense.

“I mention some minor comments (in meetings), but I wash my hands of it and let them do their thing,” Manale said. “Our defense is in very good hands.”

Rowland Skinner is the coordinator, and line coach John Creech has handled the development of James, sophomore Danquan Edwards (6-2, 235), and junior A.J. Rhea (6-2, 205).

“Jamirau James has just been an animal for us,” Manale said. “And he is developing (into a better player) every day. Edwards and Rhea play the ends and give us a very good front. Da’Vante Lebranch (5-9, 180, junior) anchors the (secondary) for us.”

Manale is a realist.

He said, “The toughest part of our schedule is in front of us. Most people will say our district is the toughest 3-A in the state.”

The unofficial state playoff power rankings list all five District 11 3-A teams — De La Salle, McMain, Curtis, Lusher and St. Charles — as playoff teams through five weeks.

“It’s a tough district, no doubt,” Manale said. “It will not be easy, but as a competitor, I love this, and my team is ready to embrace the challenge.”