Ponchatoula looks to promising youth, defensive improvement to complement QB Finley

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TJ Finley

In the not too distant past, Ponchatoula has enjoyed having good players and good football teams under legendary coach Hank Tierney.

With 273 career wins, Tierney is tenth all-time in Louisiana prep football history in victories. He is truly one of the greatest coaches to ever patrol the sidelines in our state.

That is why 2019 was both a nightmare and an aberration for a coach accustomed to winning and accustomed to fielding good defensive football teams.

Ponchatoula struggled to a 2-8 season and went 0-7 in District 6-5A. It was tough to see and it was tough for Tierney to take.

“Two years ago, we tried to run the double-slot option with TJ which was foolish on my part, “Tierney said. “We put the spread in last year and we were good on offense but we went too fast and went three-and-out too many times and put our defense on the field too much and too often. It was feast or famine. I decided we were going to be more of an RPO, short passing team to get the ball out quicker.”

Things should improved in 2019, despite a young team.

“Our young kids never lost a game as eighth-graders,” Tierney said. “They are a special bunch with a lot of ability.”

The problem was not offense.

Ponchatoula averaged 26 points per game and that included a trio of games where they were shutout (once) and held to just seven points (twice).

While Tyjae Spears is now showing his vast speed and ability at Tulane, there is still significant skill remaining at Ponchatoula.

That starts with senior quarterback TJ Finley, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound LSU commit with huge size and a powerful right arm.

“TJ is poised for a big year,” Tierney said. “He’s extremely mature. He has the ability to make every throw with a great throwing motion and he is very accurate. His football IQ is off the charts. He and I meet regularly and he soaks everything in. He has had to change offenses and has done so very well. We have to get the ball out of his hands a little quicker.”

A total of four starters return from a year ago offensively.

Finley will be asked to provide leadership for as many as six sophomores who will start with him on offense.

That includes a talented sophomore running back in Braydon Johnson (5-10, 205).

“Johnson will play some linebacker as well,” Tierney said. “He has special athletic ability. We are looking forward to see him develop.”

Talented sophomore Jacoby Matthews (6-2, 195) will see time at wide receiver and is a gifted defensive back. He started both ways as a freshman a year ago. He will be joined on the outside by sophomores Amorion Walker (6-3, 170), DeMontrell Osby (5-9, 170) Kody Finley (6-4, 175) and Mingo Gutierrez (5-8, 150).

“Walker is kin to Reggie Walker,” Tierney said. “He is Kansas State’s best player. He has size and can run. Finley is big and can run. Osby is quick as well. Matthews is very skilled.”

The offensive line features a pair of excellent returning starters in senior center Paxton Crouse (5-11, 245) and junior Aaron Landry (6-2, 240). Joining them are sophomores Cohen Troxclair (6-2, 245) and Cohen Barrilleaux (6-2, 250), along with junior Ty Booker (5-10, 295).

“Our sophomores are really going to be good players,” Tierney said. “Barrilleaux is the son of Rusty Barrilleaux who played at LSU. Landry’s father played at LSU as well. We have a lot of potential up front. I like our future there.”

A year ago, the issue for the Green Wave was its defense.

Ponchatoula allowed as astonishing 43.6 points per game.

“It was hard to watch,” Tierney said. “We did not help on offense. I have to do a better job of controlling the game. To win in high school, you have to run the ball and stop the run. We will throw with TJ but we must run to help our defense as well. We will be better this year on defense.”

Growing pains a year ago could lead to improvement in 2019 defensively for the Green Wave, who return six starters.

Up front, senior Damian McCarthy (6-2, 235) is outstanding. He will be joined by junior Lance Hilliard (6-1, 235) at end while the tackles are junior Michael Barnes (6-0, 255) and freshman Tyler Bailey (6-2, 260).

“We think Bailey is going to be really good,” Tierney said. “He will start as a freshman. McCarthy is a good player and Hilliard played a lot last year.”

Linebacker should be a strong point with a pair of seniors returning in Gabe Timmreck (5-10, 195) and Christian LeMaire (5-9, 195). Junior Albert McCarty (5-10, 180) is the other starter.

The secondary is good with Matthews and senior Javier Dawson (6-1, 175) back at safety while sophomore Geracoe Toney (5-9, 155) is back to start at cornerback. The others corners are senior Jermal Dillon (5-11, 170) and sophomore Elijah Winters (5-9, 170).

“The defensive backs will be the strength of our secondary,” Tierney said. “Matthews is that good on both sides of the ball. He has already been offered by LSU. He will be the quarterback when T.J. leaves.”

Junior Jake Leitz (5-11, 160) returns to handle kicking duties and should be excellent.

After a challenging scrimmage against De La Salle, the season opens on Sept. 6 at Live Oak before three consecutive home games at The Swamp.

The Green Wave will host Denham Springs on Sept. 13 and Brother Martin on Sept. 20. Ponchatoula won a memorable 64-63 shootout at Denham Springs a year ago in one of the most entertaining games of the season in the state.

“Live Oak has a tackle going to LSU and they are pretty good,” Tierney said. “We had a crazy game with Denham Springs yesterday. Brother Martin is well coached and they have numbers. It is a challenging pre-district schedule.”

District 6-5A play opens at home against Covington on Sept. 27 before the Green Wave head to Northshore. Mandeville visits Ponchatoula on Oct. 3 before the Green Wave go to Slidell and Fontainebleau. After hosting St. Paul’s on Nov. 1, Ponchatoula ends its regular season at Tangipahoa Parish rival Hammond on Nov. 8.

“Somebody has to beat St. Paul’s,” Tierney said. “I say that every year. We won it one year and Slidell won it one year. Otherwise, it has been the Wolves. Slidell will be very good again. Mandeville will be better under Hutch Gonzales. Hammond is much improved. It is a very competitive league. It reminds me a lot of the Catholic League in that everyone is close in talent and in many locations. I enjoy coaching in this league.”

There is no doubt that Ponchatoula can score and will score points. The question is whether its defense has improved enough to erase the memory of a forgettable season and restore a winning tradition. History suggests that we should not bet against Tierney.

“We are determined as a staff and as a team to get it turned around,” Tierney said. “We are working toward that goal every day.”

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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…

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