West St. John defense comes up big in Class 1A championship win over Kentwood

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NEW ORLEANS — West St. John coach Brandon Walters said he likes to give his defense “lofty” turnover goals.

The target for the Class 1A state championship game was a very lofty eight.

The Rams managed just half of that, but it still made the difference in their 20-14 victory against Kentwood in the opener of the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Prep Classic on Thursday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Niko Roy, Covan Barnes, Trenton Grow and D’Kyri Jackson each made an interception for No. 1 seed West St. John (11-2).

“We practice that and we play that way,” Walters said. “Our goal is usually four or five. We have so many athletes on that defense. We knew Kentwood would definitely test us and we stood up.”

Roy’s interception came on the first series of the game and set up a touchdown. Barnes returned his interception 46 yards for a second-quarter touchdown that broke a 7-7 tie and gave the Rams a 13-7 halftime lead.

Grow’s and Jackson’s interceptions stymied the Kangaroos’ final two possessions. Grow’s takeaway came at the Rams 1-yard line with 2:00 left and Jackson’s came at their 7 with 13 seconds left.

“That was our sloppiest game all year,” Kentwood coach Jonathan Foster II said. “We picked the wrong game to be sloppy.”

The No. 3 Kangaroos (13-2) hurt themselves further with 18 penalties for 95 yards. The Rams had five penalties for 37 yards.

“Mistakes and turnovers,” Foster said. “The penalties did us in even more than the turnovers.”

West St. John, which won the coin toss and deferred for just the second time this season, received the second-half kickoff and drove 67 yards. Kylan Duhe, who finished with 120 yards on 29 carries, ran 3 yards for his second touchdown and a 20-7 lead.

“I got my chance to shine,” Duhe said.

Kentwood responded on the ensuing possession with a 62-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Larenz Morris to Trey Palmer for what turned out to be the game’s final points with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter.

Morris completed 8-of-26 for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked three times and threw each of the interceptions. He kept his team alive, though, by rushing 17 times for 91 yards, including a 42-yard run to the Rams 24 on Kentwood’s second-to-last possession. But he threw his second-to-last interception two plays later.

“Coach Foster always tells us to finish,” Morris said. “Finish plays and finish games. I wasn’t able to finish for my team.”

But the Kangaroos weren’t finished after that interception because West St. John was backed up to its 1 with two minutes remaining. After an offside penalty on Kentwood, Roy ran up the middle for 14 yards.

“I just wanted to put the game away,” Roy said.

He didn’t quite do that, but he sure helped. That gave the Rams a fresh set of downs and forced Kentwood to use all three of its timeouts on defense. After the Kangaroos forced a punt they started at their 47 with 1:20 left.

They reached the West St. John 31 before committing an ineligible-downfield penalty ahead of the final interception.

“This is high-school football,” Walters said. “You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be good at that play at that time.”

The first interception came on the second play of the game and set up Duhe’s 3-yard touchdown run.

“That set the tone from the get-go,” Walters said.

Early in the second quarter, Kentwood went for fourth-and-goal from the 9 and Morris threw a touchdown pass to Radarrian Robbins to tie the score.

On the ensuing possession, the Rams committed their only turnover of the game when Robbins intercepted DiAndre Gaudia.

But three plays later, Barnes made his interception and sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown and a lead that West St. John would never relinquish.

“I told my big brother this week that I was going to make an interception and run it back,” Barnes said, “and that’s what I did.”

Even though the lead briefly grew to two scores, the Rams didn’t score during the final 20 minutes and had to withstand four Kangaroos possessions on which a touchdown and extra point could have changed the outcome.

But the West St. John defense was up to the challenge as it had been all season and in allowing a total of just 26 points in three playoff victories before Thursday’s, which brought the school its fourth state championship and first since 2004.

“Games like that are great for the fans, but it’s tough being on the sideline for that,” Walters said. “It’s a gut-check thing, a heart-check thing, but we’re the champions now.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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