Marquee rematch or mismatch?
De La Salle would like to believe a school-record third straight trip to the Division II football state semifinals indicates the former rather than the latter.
The answer arrives at 7 p.m. Friday when the Cavaliers tackle mighty University at U-High’s Gill Stadium in Baton Rouge in a rematch of last year’s Division II championship game.
University’s reigning state champions, riding a 24-game winning streak and again directed by coach Chad Mahaffey, return a lion’s share of the personnel that produced a 45-19 triumph over the Cavaliers in the Division II final of the LHSAA Prep Classic in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in December.
Top-seeded University (11-0) appears to be even stronger than last year's No. 2 seed, with eight players — seven seniors and one junior — who are Division I commitments.
The seniors are wide receiver/cornerback Christian Harris (Texas A&M), wide receiver Makiya Tongue (Georgia), linebacker Bryton Constantin (Clemson), defensive back/wide receiver Jordan Clark (Arizona State), running back Michael Hollins (Virginia), offensive lineman Dylan Rathcke (Arkansas) and defensive tackle Donald Berniard (Navy) while junior defensive lineman Jacquelin Roy is LSU committed.
“Their team is phenomenal,’’ De La Salle coach Ryan Manale said. “They are well, well coached. They have some of the best looking high school athletes that I’ve ever seen in all my years of coaching. I’ve played against some very good teams in 21 years as an assistant or head coach, and I cannot recall this many good looking kids on the same team.
“And, you throw in that they have one of the top coaching staffs in the state, and it’s a dangerous combination. They may be the only team that can slow down the Saints right now.’’
Fifth-seeded De La Salle (8-3) has reloaded adequately enough from last season's No. 1 seed to advance to its school-record third straight semifinals.
U-High, in contrast, returns two all-staters in Hollins and Constantin, although several more are expected to join those ranks following this season.
“The matchup doesn’t look good on paper, but our kids are excited because this is what you want, you want to play against the best in the state, one of the top teams in the nation, and that’s what we’re getting in the semifinals,’’ Manale said. “We would rather it be in the Superdome, but let’s see where we’re at. We can’t wait to show up and play and compete against a team the caliber of University.’’
Seeking their fourth appearance in the Division II finals in six seasons, the Cubs appear to be taking nothing for granted as evidenced by their opening playoff effort last week after a first-round bye, a 48-14 victory against No. 9 seed St. Louis Catholic. Quarterback John Gordon McKernan passed for five touchdowns and 221 yards in less than three quarters.
In following a similar script to last season, the Cubs now have beaten each of their four most recent playoff opponents by three touchdowns or more.
“Obviously, having the number of returning starters that we have, our guys have high expectations,’’ Mahaffey said. “But externally and internally our kids are motivated and want to have a great season and try to finish with a championship. I don’t feel like there is any pressure or anything like that, but they understand that we have a good team and just expect a lot out of ourselves.’’
Propelled by running backs Kendall Collins Jr. and Montrell Johnson, De La Salle has posted two skins in the playoffs with last week’s 17-14 upset at undefeated No. 4 seed Hannan looming large.
Collins rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries while Johnson rushed for the other touchdown and Blake Giancone kicked a 29-yard field goal and two PATs. Collins is De La Salle’s lone college commitment, to Southeastern Louisiana.
Mahaffey sees no likelihood that U-High’s extraordinary collection of talent would overlook the Cavaliers in a bid to face the winner between No. 2 St. Charles Catholic and No. 3 St. Thomas More in the Dec. 7 state final in two weeks and add to their 2014 and 2017 state crowns.
“Our kids would be pretty stupid to feel that way,’’ Mahaffey said. “I don’t think they do. (De La Salle) has a really good team. Looking at their roster, there still are some really good players (back) from last year that are big players for them. (Although) they certainly are a younger team this year, having guys able to play that young obviously means that the future is pretty bright for them.
“I think offensively that they have really good schemes and are coached up well. I think they’re a lot further along than people would expect given some of the guys they lost from last year. When I look at De La Salle on defense, their personnel is pretty strong. I don’t see a whole lot of difference. Offensively, they’re still very big upfront. The Gums kid was a big loss, but I still think they are very capable with their personnel.
“And, to be honest, I think the final score was not reflective of how that game went last year. I think we might have had 240 yards of offense or something like that. It wasn’t like it was very dominant. We got some short fields and special teams plays that separated us at the end. But it was far from a dominating game in our eyes.’’
For the Cavaliers to advance in a quest for the school’s first state title, Manale said, “We really can’t beat ourselves. We have to play a near perfect football game. There is no doubt we have to be at our best. Good teams get you panicking to where you fall behind the chains without them even stopping you.
“It’s enough of a struggle trying to gain a yard against their defense or tackle their skill. To give them pre-snap or post-snap penalties cannot happen. We really cannot beat ourselves. I think the key outside of that is we have to control the tempo of the game.
“They are very good at each level on defense. And then offensively there are weapons all over. They want to go extremely fast once they get going so a key is if we can control that. You don’t see the punt team on the field much for them. They are a complete team. So we have to find a way to be at our best.’’