Down by the Riverside: A prep league long forgotten

By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports

Once upon a time, when there were just three classifications of high schools (2A, 1A and B), a local league was formed among the metro area’s smaller schools. Because schools from the three parishes of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard were bisected by the Mississippi River, the fledgling was known as the Riverside League and began formal play in 1939.

The 10 members were Newman, Rugby Academy, New Orleans Academy, Maumus (which would be renamed Arabi) and the six Jefferson Parish mites – Metairie, Jefferson and Kenner on the East Bank, and Gretna, Marrero and Westwego on the west side of the river.

The scattered schools were able to compete against each other because of the construction of the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1935. Prior to that advent, teams and their fans had to ride one of two ferries across the river. Obviously, games were sparsely attended.

Just one of the nine remains today: Newman, whose first football game took place in 1908, a 10-0 decision over Rugby.

During the league’s life span of just 15 years, sports coverage by the local newspapers included everything from professional boxing, horseracing, local wrestling, the Pelicans AA baseball team, college and high school sports.

The NFL was little more than a footnote on page 8 of the sports section. Television did not exist, a local public phone call cost 5 cents. Cell phones? Are you kidding? Facebook wasn’t a word, and only birds tweeted.

Was high school sports more important to the public back then than it is today?

There were 17,000 American Legion baseball teams in the U.S. in 1954. That number has dwindled to 3,786 in 2016, according to the figures at the National Legion office.

At the end of World War II,  high school football games in the city drew 238,715 cash-paying spectators in 1945, 279,866 in 1946 and 283,767  in 1947. And those numbers were attracted by just eight high schools.

Yes, Warren Easton, Jesuit, Holy Cross, St. Aloysius, Fortier, Redemptorist, Nicholls and Peters were drawing big numbers while the little Riversiders were carving their own niches.

 

The league members

  • Newman – The Greenies’ grid history began at a time when schoolboys were playing at football more than playing football.

There were just four teams in 1908: Boys High (named Warren Easton in 1913), Jesuit,  Newman and Rugby. Games were hastily arranged on any day of the week available.

The Prep League split into classes A and B in 1922, and Newman was paired with Rugby, New Orleans Academy and Verrina (a small Catholic school adjacent to St. Stephen) and placed in Class B.

Under coach Jack Orsley, Newman football prospered between 1928-32, accruing a record of 26-5-2.

The banner year came in 1948 when Ralph Harris coached Newman to seven wins and the Riverside Class A title. The Greenies’ playoff bid, however, was spoiled by Reserve, 26-6.

  • NOA (1910-1986) – The Cadets’ mediocre record of 59-62-4 reflects their slide from prominence during the latter years. But in 1944, this team was a power, winning all seven games by an average point differential of 43-4.

And had headmaster Capt. Robert M. Perrin paid the school’s $15 dues to the LHSAA, that team would not been shut out of the Class B playoffs.

  • Rugby Academy (1896-1970) – The Cardinals had but one winning season during their Riverside stay, in 1943, when they went 5-1 and allowed just two touchdowns. Unfortunately, one was to Newman for the league championship, a 6-0 loss.

Rugby did not field teams in 1948, 1951, 1952 or 1954, the league’s final year.

  • Maumus/Arabi (1937-1954) – Its original name was changed to Arabi School in 1947 and closed in 1954 when Chalmette High opened.

The Owls posted a 14-3-1 record in 1940-41 but settled for second place behind Metairie High both years. They enjoyed one more winning season in 1950, and their competitiveness is reflected in the teams’ cumulative record of 38-40-7.

And for a brief time, there were the Bees.

  • Behrman (1932-1968) – Destined to someday become a large school, this Algiers public school tried its hand at competing against the city’s major Prep League. But transportation problems caused by World War II and gas rationing, chased the Bees into the Riverside League.

There, they had two productive seasons in 1945 and 1949. Its most productive campaign came in 1954, the year it ended its stay in the league. After winning the Riverside crown in a near-perfect season, the Bees lost the Class A state title to Minden, 14-0. They finished with a 10-1 record.

 

The Jefferson 6

Jefferson Parish schools began to compete against each other on the football field in 1937 and were charter members of the Riverside League two years later.

Their stay ended in 1955 when the three East Bank schools consolidated into East Jefferson and their west side  counterparts morphed into West Jefferson.

  • Metairie – This was the Alpha football school. Given an A classification because of its large enrollment, Metairie won nine Riverside football titles and shared two others under coach Ashley Schexnaildre. The Yellow Jackets had a winning series record against its five parish counterparts.

It preferred playing in benefit bowl games rather than the state playoffs. Perhaps because its one venture turned out to be a 27-6 defeat to Reserve High.

  •  Kenner – This is the only parish school to win a state championship. The Thunderbolts, under the legendary coach and former Jefferson Parish president Joe Yenni, did so in 1952 when they capped off an 11-1 season by defeating Donaldsonvile, 19-6, for the Class B title.
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