History in the making as the Catholic League reunites

A half-century ago, Holy Cross center-linebacker Barry Wilson was preparing for his senior season with the Tigers before heading off the following summer to play for some other Tigers 75 miles up the road.

Still fresh in his mind from that 1963 season was how badly he and his teammates wanted to beat their archrival, Jesuit. The Tigers were left with a horrible taste in their mouths a season earlier when the Blue Jays posted a 7-6 victory at Tad Gormley Stadium.

Not only did Holy Cross exact a measure of revenge by dethroning the Catholic League champions, they beat Jesuit twice — the second time for the AAA state championship in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Tulane Stadium.

“I played that game with a broken hand,” said Wilson, now coach at his alma mater. “It wasn’t just because it was the state championship game. It was Jesuit.”

That’s just one of hundreds of stories told by the athletes who have played in the Catholic League in the past 68 years.

Recently, though, it hasn’t been the same. Since some of the longtime members have had to drop down in class — mainly a result of declining enrollment after Hurricane Katrina, plus since-rescinded LHSAA mandates — public schools were added to the district.

That is set to change this fall: Most of the old schools are reuniting.

Shaw, Holy Cross and St. Augustine are together again with Jesuit, Rummel and Brother Martin in District 9-5A or, as most of us know it, the Catholic League. Only charter member De La Salle is missing, and the Cavaliers made that decision several years ago.

When the LHSAA voted in 2005 to force schools to play in whatever classification they fit — no longer allowing them to play up — the Catholic League became a shadow of its former self. And no one could envision the role Katrina would play in the dismantling of the district due to already declining enrollment at Catholic schools, with De La Salle out in 2003 after 58 years.

Shaw moved to Class 4A just before the storm and, after thousands of students evacuated the metro area in August 2005, Holy Cross later was forced to drop to Class 3A. When the Tigers departed in 2007, the district was left with four teams and was forced to merge with the public schools.

Finally last year, Shaw, Holy Cross and St. Aug were given the OK to play up again. From that point, the reuniting of the Catholic League was a formality.

“This is what I’ve strived for since Katrina,” Wilson said. “I lost what I thought was going to be our best football team (in 2005). We felt like that group could take it all the way, and then we broke up. I’ve been struggling to get back. … It’s something I have wanted for a long time.”

It appears to be a good time for the league to regain some of its glory. Rummel is the defending Class 5A state champion, and St. Aug is gaining national attention because of the country’s top recruit, running back Leonard Fournette. Brother Martin has one of the state’s best offensive linemen in LSU commitment Will Clapp, and Jesuit and Shaw are working on returning their programs to the usual state of dominance.

While the crowd old enough to remember life without email, digital music and watching games on your cell phone might be stoked about the reunion, many of those who actually will be on the field can’t quite grasp what this is all about. For some 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds at Shaw and St. Augustine, in their minds, Belle Chasse and McDonogh 35 are as big (or bigger) rivals as Brother Martin and Jesuit.

When asked what team he wants to beat most this season, St. Aug senior offensive tackle Joseph Paul didn’t say Rummel. He didn’t respond with Holy Cross or Jesuit, either. Instead, without hesitation, he said, “Edna Karr because that’s who knocked us out of the playoffs last year.”

That attitude could change after crowds of 7,000 fill Hoss Memtsas and Joe Yenni stadiums and as many as 20,000 pack Tad Gormley Stadium in October and November.

“I don’t know that the history of the Catholic League is as compelling to our students, and that’s only because we’ve been broken up,” said Shaw coach Scott Bairnsfather, who was a defensive back and quarterback for the Eagles in the mid-1980s and graduated from the Marrero school in 1985.

“In a couple of years, our young kids who weren’t a part of it will understand the meaning of the Catholic League.”

Although the players aren’t as familiar with one another as they might have been 10 years ago, the coaches feel comfortable in the Catholic League because it has been a part of most of them since they were teenagers. Five of the six coaches played in the league, and four of them did so where they’re coaching today. Only St. Aug’s Cyril Crutchfield played elsewhere; he was at Covington in the early 1980s.

Other than Wilson and Bairnsfather, Jesuit coach Wayde Kaiser graduated from the Banks Street school in 1978, and Raiders coach Jay Roth is a Rummel alum from the Class of 1981. Brother Martin coach Mark Bonis graduated in 1997 from Jesuit.

Like Wilson, each has his own story to tell about playing in the Catholic League. And one thing that sticks out among each of them is, even though his school might have had a main rival — Holy Cross vs. Jesuit, Shaw vs. Rummel, etc. — all of the games were big.

Kaiser remembers a 1977 game against the Purple Knights, who were two years removed from a state championship, in which “45,000 or 50,000 fans were at Tad Gormley.”

“The stadium was electric,” he said. “We were just getting better. We played everybody tough that year. We were beating Aug by four with about two minutes left in the game. The electricity in that place when they got the ball back for that final drive and we couldn’t stop them ... all I can remember was that crowd, and many of our games were like that.”

In 1978, just months after Kaiser graduated, St. Augustine defeated Jesuit 14-7 in the first AAAA state title game played in the Superdome.

Tony Biagas, a player for the Purple Knights in the early 1970s who coached for his alma mater from 1987 to 2001 and is now stadium manager for City Park, said he’s excited about the reunion.

“From a personal standpoint, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “We were the first black school in the LHSAA, and the competition we faced in the Catholic League was as good as anywhere in the state. That we were able to compete and compete successfully meant a lot to us. Later as a coach, I appreciated the level of coaching we faced each week.

“So seeing the league come back together is tremendous. We’ve been playing each other since the storm, but it wasn’t quite the same.”

The reunion obviously is important to Roth and the Raiders. Walk into his office, and the pictures stand out.

Just above a photo of his 2012 state champions, Roth has a poster commemorating WLAE’s 2010 broadcast of “Glory Days: The Catholic League of New Orleans.”

“I remember a dusty field at City Park and East Jefferson stadiums. I remember low-scoring games and great defense,” he said. “And I remember whoever came out of the Catholic League usually went far in the playoffs.

“Don’t let anyone fool you. Our goal was to win the Catholic League championship. Of course, we wanted to win state, but we’d worry about that once we got into the playoffs. We wanted more to be Catholic League champions. And notice we don’t say district champions; we say Catholic League champions.

“That’s something you can carry with you throughout your whole life.”