Chango, Ibieta lead the way as Country Day looks to take next step
The 2018 season was a watershed campaign for Country Day football.
Country Day had its best season ever, finishing 11-1 and just one step short of the state championship game. The Cajuns outscored Ascension Episcopal 58-35 in the Division III quarterfinals before losing an epic 57-54 defeat to Catholic of New Iberia in the semifinals in a game seen live at CrescentCitySports.com.
Joe Chango had previously taken the Cajuns to the quarterfinals and Country Day had been to the semifinals on just one other occasion in school history.
The bar has been raised. The excitement around the program is palpable. The expectations are soaring, from fans, to players, to alumni, to everyone attached to the Cajun program.
“Yes, we certainly feel the excitement surrounding our team,” Chango said. “We feel like we are trying to load back up and go at it again. We have dropped to 1A enrollment so we will be competing in Division IV, rather than Division III. It’s a pretty competitive playoff bracket but we are ready for the challenge.”
Is the lower classification beneficial to Country Day?
“I like that it’s a full playoff bracket,” Chango said. “That was not the case in Division III. I hated the byes. I like that aspect a lot. There are a lot of competitive teams. There are teams that are more like us in terms of student population. For those reasons, it’s a better fit but we were never upset about having to play in Division III, either.”
The biggest challenge for Chango is always numbers. Many of his players have to go both ways and the attrition that comes with injuries can be a tremendous hindrance in trying to accomplish the goal of winning a state title.
There are 45 players listed on this year’s roster but that includes 18 freshmen.
“A couple are ineligible but we are up about 12 to 13 guys from last season,” Chango said. “I have a really big freshman class so the future bodes well. They are a great group of kids and they are working hard and will be good down the line.”
Fortunately, there is the presence of senior quarterback Justin Ibieta (6-4, 220). The Tulane commit was the CrescentCitySports.com and New Orleans Quarterback Club Metro Player of the Year in 2018.
Ibieta was sensational in leading Country Day to the Division III semifinals. He completed 191 of 295 passes for 2,870 yards and 38 touchdowns with just five interceptions. Ibieta also rushed 147 times for 1,023 yards and 17 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Ibieta accounted for all 16 touchdowns scored by the Cajuns, passing for 11 touchdowns and rushing for five scores.
“I think Justin still has improvement to make,” Chango said. “I think he can still get better and he was simply outstanding last season. By the end of this season, I think he will be better than he was last year. We are counting on it. He wants to be better. Playing basketball and baseball may stunt his growth as a quarterback a bit because he doesn’t have the offseason but the other sports have helped his athleticism in football. I am a proponent of multi-sport athletes in high school.”
Ibieta is back and ready to roll in 2019. Five starters are back on offense from 2018.
Ibieta has an outstanding senior wide receiver returning as well in senior Tyler Williams (6-1, 180). Williams had 700 yards receiving a year ago on offense and starred on defense as well at safety.
The receiver spot is a real strength with senior CD St. Hilaire (5-7, 150) and Dylan Simmons (5-9, 170) also returning as starters while junior Daniel Conwell (6-4, 180) has great size.
“The receiver spot is one of the real strengths we have,” Chango said. “Our outside guys, Tyler Williams and Daniel Conwell are both real good. Daniel is almost an identical physical fit to Christian Becnel, who was so good for us last year. Conwell has really good hands and he can run. The two inside slot guys in St. Helaire and Simmons are not big but they are fast, athletic and smart. I feel really good about the receivers Justin has around him.”
The running back is senior Steven Wagner (5-11, 230), who packs a punch physically.
“Steven played for us as a freshman but did not play the last two years,” Chango said. “He really got into boxing and took boxing lessons. He came back to us and said he wanted to play as a senior because he missed it. We’re really excited about him. He’s a strong kid, he’s fast, he’s got a good understanding of what we’re trying to do. He will be a surprise to opponents.”
Up front, junior Douglas Heebe (5-10, 230) is the lone returning starter on a relatively young, inexperienced front. The new starters include senior Randolph French (5-10, 220), junior Christian Rizzi (5-11, 230) and sophomores Will Lafaye (5-9, 170) and Scott Isacks (6-3, 240), who started as a freshman on the defensive line and will see time offensively as well this year.
“We are inexperienced up front but we’ve got guys we like who can step up and play well,” Chango said. “Heebe started last year in the Amite game last year and he blocked Ishmael Sopsher for an entire game. We feel good about him. The other four spots have a handful of guys competing. We feel the guys who win starting jobs will be solid.”
The Cajuns have five defensive starters returning, including Isacks, who had 48 tackles a year ago from his tackle spot. Joining Isacks will be French and Heebe.
“We have a little more experience with Isacks and French and we can be stout up front,” Chango said.
A pair of starting linebackers are back in junior Tanner Fawer (6-0, 180) and sophomore Michael Talbot (5-9, 175). Senior William Huger (5-9, 160) is the new starter on the outside.
“We feel our linebackers, as a group, will come together,” Chango said.
The secondary features Williams, who had 50 tackles and four interceptions last season, along with Simmons. The other starters are juniors Edward Lombard (5-10, 160) and Carter Borron (5-7, 170). Robert Bridgewater is a senior corner.
“Williams and Simmons return for us and are good,” Chango said. “Lombard is a track star who can run. We know he has good speed and is athletic. We are waiting for him to grow into the cornerback position. Bridgewater is a transfer from Jesuit who had to sit and watch last year. He is coming around well. He has shown he is capable and he is a senior. We feel good about our secondary and they are improving every day.”
Senior Andrew Lopez (5-7, 160) will handle punting and kicking duties.
The schedule opens at 5A East Jefferson on Sept. 6 before the Cajuns host Division II power De La Salle at Wenzel Field Sept. 13 and always solid Episcopal on Sept. 20. The great rivalry with Newman, now a non-district game, is set for Sept. 27 under the lights at Wenzel Field.
“We’ve never avoided anyone,” Chango said. “We’ve worked with East Jefferson in the summer and it is good to play them. De La Salle is tough. Ryan Manale came to our semifinal game last year and he called me about playing. They are really good. We will have our hands full. We are excited about it. If we can line up with them and make some first downs, we will be okay down the road. Episcopal is always a good game.”
Then, there is Newman.
“We were very excited to keep our rivalry with the Greenies alive,” Chango said. “That has been such a good, competitive game with a lot of intensity over the last four years. We’ve gone back and forth with it. When Nelson and I talked, we knew we had to play this game. It’s made us both better. We both got better because we play each other.”
District 9-1A play begins at home against rival St. Martin’s Episcopal on Oct. 11 before a very tough challenge at powerful West St. John follows. After a non-district game at Ben Franklin, the Cajuns close the regular season at Riverside Academy on Nov. 8.
“St. Martin’s still has a little way to go to get to a top level,” Chango said. “Frank Gendusa is an excellent coach and I have no doubt he will likely get that done in time. West St. John is the class of the district. They are talented and accustomed to winning big. Riverside is always a real test and they should be better.”
If the Cajuns can avoid injuries, the Cajuns will be a force in Division IV in 2019 with a shot to take that next step and make it to a state championship game for the first time in school history.
“We feel it is possible,” Chango said. “Southern Lab is exceptional. Vermilion Catholic is good, as are others. We will get to play some different people. We feel if we stay healthy, we can line up and beat anyone we play against.”
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…