University Lab vs. De La Salle for the Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic Division II football championship matches two prep powers with different, and interesting, backgrounds.
The two will meet in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, Dec. 8, in a 3:30 p.m. game to decide to whom the trophy goes. Neither is accustomed to playing a game at that time of day.
U-High – or just Lab, as the LSU laboratory school is more commonly known – has a football history that dates back to 1937 when it fielded its first football team in Baton Rouge. It took awhile for the (Tiger) Cubs to win their first state championship, 37 years to be exact, when they edged Sicily Island, 14-13, for the Class 1A title. They have also won that same class championship in 1988.
More recently, Lab has enjoyed a successful playoff history, having participated in every postseason since 2005. This is the Cubs’ 13th consecutive trip to the playoffs.
But, until this season, they had made it unscathed just once, in 2014, when running back Nick Brossette, now playing at LSU, led the Cubs to a 46-32 win over Parkview Baptist in a season in which he set eight school rushing records.
University was a Division II semifinal-round loser in 2015 as a No. 1 seed, and again in 2012 as a Class 2A team before the split of public and non-public schools.
Now, as a No. 2 seed, the Cubs meet No. 1 De La Salle for the Division II trophy in a game that figures to be a battle of attrition between two jackhammer offenses.
Piling up big numbers
During a perfect 10-0 regular season, University defeated Division I finalist Catholic High, 34-6; Class 5A finalist Zachary, 26-7; and the 2016 Division I titlist, Southern Lab, 35-16. Those were the closest winning margins.
In the remaining seven games, the Cubs outscored their hapless prey, 347-53.
The playoffs were equally successful with victories over Teurlings Catholic, 35-9; and St. Charles Catholic, 34-14.
And that is what awaits De La Salle.
Under head coach Ryan Manale, the Cavaliers came onto the local prep scene like a modern-day Phoenix, rising from the ashes of football obscurity that lasted from 1970 until Ryan was hired to take over the failing program in 2012.
Coming from a veteran staff under the leadership of Jay Roth at Archbishop Rummel, Manale made the best of his apprenticeship. He hit the ground running when he entered the door at 5300 St. Charles Ave. He sold young athletes on De La Salle without having a portfolio of success to bolster his efforts.
Manale came at the right time. De La Salle alums had forgotten what it was like to win. Since losing to Istrouma for the 1961 Class 3A championship, the Cavaliers had just five playoff appearances, in 1968, 1969, 1997, 2003 and 2004. The most successful was in ’69 when they lost to LaGrange, 21-0, in the semifinal round. They were ranked No. 2 in Class 3A at the time.
The long drought, which saw the school end its partnership with the Catholic League following a 2-8 season in 2002, continued until the administration, under its late president Mike Guillot, made a commitment to the student body and alumni to restore pride through a successful athletic program.
It began when Paul Kelly became head coach of the boys’ basketball program. Although doubling as the school’s principal, Kelly built a winning program that culminated in De La Salle claiming the 2016 Division II championship.
The football team has ridden the same escalator. The Cavaliers have made the playoffs for seven consecutive years: two as a Class 3A team and five as a Division II participant.
They have one common opponent in St. Charles Catholic, which fell in a district game to the Cavs, 28-0.
Manale’s defense, now in the care of longtime coordinator Eddie Jacquillard, had just one scare, but averted a defeat to Edna Karr, 28-26. That was Karr’s only loss during its trek to the Class 4A championship game this week.
In attaining its 11-0 record, the maroon machine has outscored its opponents by an average score of 43-12. That includes playoff wins over Hannan, 52-14, and St. Thomas More, 28-14.
So which prevails? The irresistible force or the immovable object?
This is the second time De La Salle has been seeded at the top of the division. Last year, the Cavs had their most successful season in history, having won 11 games before losing to Parkview Baptist, 34-14, in the semifinal round.
On that same night, University Lab, the No. 7 seed, fell to eventual champion St. Thomas More, 40-35.
Neither Manale nor his U-High counterpart has let his team forget those disappointments. One will vindicate itself on the Dome floor.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.