Xs and Os aside, the Division I football championship rematch that is John Curtis versus Catholic of Baton Rouge does not lack for cerebral thought.
Consider these words by the coaches of these top two seeds, J.T. Curtis of John Curtis and Gabe Fertitta of Catholic.
Curtis (12-0) enters Saturday’s noon pairing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome carrying the mantel of No. 1 seed.
But the three-time reigning Catholic League champions also shoulder the burden of being expected to halt a four-year void when the LHSAA’s King of Kings program has won no state crowns for the first time since winning the first of a record 26 titles in 1975.
It was Catholic that denied the Patriots of a 27th championship a year ago with a 20-14 victory in a matchup of No. 4 and 2 seeds.
“The bottom line is that any time you lose, you evaluate what you’ve done and what you could have done better,’’ Curtis said when asked if there was any mounting pressure on his nationally acclaimed program. “Here’s the deal that I think people lose sight of some time.
“To say that you are competing for the top honor in your state is very special. I don’t want to ever get to a point with our players or our program where if you lose a game like that, that you feel like you have failed.
“This is not a team that has failed. This is a team that has had great success. You want to appreciate that. I think it’s important that you recognize the value of that and realize there are people that would like to be where you are and you need to be very appreciative of it.’’
Second-seeded Catholic (11-1) is somewhat of a new kid on the block in terms of state titles, having won its first two championships during the past three seasons.
Fertitta and his staff, which includes an assistant coach trained in sports psychology, conducted research during the bye week between the semifinals and finals to educate their players on the pressure inherent of being a defending champion, particularly one facing a rematch.
“To say it’s not a factor at all, you would be lying,’’ Fertitta said. “We’ve got a coach on our staff who’s got his doctorate in sports psychology. During our bye week, I sat down with him and we looked over some famous rematches throughout sports.
“You’ve got Ali-Frazier. You’ve got Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. There have been multiple big iconic rematches and in almost every one of them the guy or team that won the first one loses the second one. We looked at a bunch of them and wondered why is that the case from a sports psychology standpoint.
“We found that there definitely is externally more motivation when you look at a game and say look how close we were as opposed to look at what we did. We presented all of that to the kids and showed them that this is how you could view this.
“Or you could view this as, hey, let’s go be the best team we can be. If that’s your motivation, then it doesn’t matter who won the first one. All that matters is that you be the best you that you can be and let the chips fall where they may. So that’s kind of the approach that we’ve taken.’’
Completing his 50th season as head coach, J.T. Curtis rarely acknowledges atonement as motivation, but in this case he believes it likely is difficult to ignore.
“I think it is in their minds,’’ Curtis said of his players. “Certainly, a lot of these kids played against (Catholic) last year. They remember. They know the outcome of the game. I don’t think you can win games on emotion and revenge.
“I think you have to win the game on execution and the technique that you play. But, certainly, they remember the loss to Catholic High. Any time you lose any game, but especially in the state championship, it’s a long lasting effect, no question.’’
There also is no question that the Bears are a much more polished and balanced football team compared to a year ago thanks to the passing of senior quarterback Cameron Dartez and tailback Joshua Parker’s emergence as a 1,000-yard rusher.
Catholic has won nine consecutive games since a 41-21 loss to University in Week 3. The Bears also have defeated two other teams, Zachary and St. Thomas More, which are playing for state titles this weekend.
In addition to a 27th state crown, Curtis is pursuing its first championship as a member of the highest classification and a 14th undefeated season. The Patriots have won 22 of their past 23 games under the direction of junior Collin Guggenheim, a three-year starter at quarterback.
From Catholic High’s perspective, Fertitta says of Curtis, “It’s like the more things change, the more they stay the same. From the outside perspective, from a schematic standpoint, you watch it and it doesn’t seem (different). They’re running the veer and they’re running the same (50) defense that they ran last year.
“But when you really go through it with a fine tooth comb, you see that these guys don’t miss anything. It’s not like they just pull out the 1950 Curtis playbook, knock the dust and go again. They tweak and they adjust and they tinker.
“And it’s all little bitty things that if you weren’t really paying attention you’d miss it. But they are doing things that make a big difference in the way that you prepare for them.
“The quarterback is a heck of a football player. We knew that last year with him going in as a sophomore. With that much more experience under his belt, he’s dynamic.’’
For Catholic to emerge victorious, Fertitta said, "Aside from the normal clichés, (like) protecting the ball and that kind of stuff, I think that anytime you're playing John Curtis, if you don’t win the field position game, you’re not going to win. That involves things like moving the ball on offense and ending with a kick whether that’s punting the ball or hitting a PAT or a field goal.
"They fight a war of attrition in the field position. And before you know it, you look up in the third or the fourth quarter and you realize we’ve been back here in our own territory for half of the game. It’s not like it’s all these big chunks all of the time. It’s just like they sneak up on you.
"They get 10 here, 15 there. You don’t catch a punt. You let it hit the ground and it goes 20 yards. All of those things, those little bitty field position things, if they add up to 60 yards or more, then you can count six points for them. Sixty yards is six points. So that’s where the little things are in this game. You have to take care of that if you want to have a chance to win.''