District 5-5A: There’s strength in numbers in this league, maybe the state’s toughest

Woodlawn’s Brett Beard is the newcomer to the District 5-5A football fraternity. The second-year head coach made the boldest statement.

“I think, top to bottom, hands down, it’s the best district in the state,” Beard said. “There are districts with great teams and some that have several really good teams. But this is a gauntlet; every week you get pushed to the limit.”

Bold indeed, considering the dominance of West Monroe in North Louisiana and Acadiana High in the Acadiana/Southwest area.

Does the five-team district have the goods to back it up? Catholic and Dutchtown are traditional powers, but no Baton Rouge area school has advanced to a title game in the Class 5A era. Veterans like Dutchtown’s Benny Saia and Catholic High’s Dale Weiner see the big question as being one of survival, not necessarily dominance.

“Last year, we won five games by three points or less,” Saia said. “We were a fairly young team and grew in a lot of areas last year. It’s the same thing this year. We have less experience on the offensive line and with our receivers on offense. On defense, the secondary is our strength. You’ve got to get better ... it’s a process.

“I’d have to say Catholic is the favorite, based on what they return. There are other factors, like injuries, that make a difference. Last year, there were four teams with the chance to win the district title the last week of the season. It could be that way again.”

Added Weiner: “What I like about (the district) is the competitiveness. You’ve got great schools and coaches. Every year there are adjustments. We have experience at running back and a first-year starter at quarterback. All our linebackers return, but our linemen are new starters. Those new guys have to get experience. Nobody knows exactly how all that will come together. That’s the challenge.”

One thing 5-5A definitely has is star power. Some consider Catholic running back Derrius Guice, an LSU commitment, to be Louisiana’s top prospect for 2015. Guice earned all-state honors and ran for 1,101 yards and 13 touchdowns despite being plagued by injuries.

Dutchtown has a rising star with a familiar name. Safety Justin Reid, the younger brother of ex-DHS and LSU star Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, has garnered national attention and teams with another talented safety, Alonzo Craighton.

“We’re confident in what we do and people expect us to be successful,” Dutchtown quarterback Brandt Fritsche said. “We got bigger and stronger over the summer. Everybody else was did that, too.”

The 5-5A talent pool runs deeper than what fans expect to see from the traditional frontrunners. McKinley is primed to have a breakout season after finishing 3-8 last season. Two players, offensive lineman Keeyon Smart (Tulane) and linebacker Kirk Louis Jr. (Arkansas State), already have committed and are part of a 25-player senior class.

“I think the difference for us this year is the intensity,” McKinley fullback Charles Vaughn said. “We’ve got a lot of returning starters, and everybody knows what to do. It’s a matter of doing it.”

Depth and the ability to make big plays at crucial times also are part of the 5-5A brand. St. Amant has fewer returning starters but does boast a 32-player senior group that includes quarterback Tyler Dixon and receiver Marquise Hampton. Coach David Oliver noted the importance of finishing — a byproduct of the Gators losing several close games in 2013, which offset a notable win over Catholic.

“We were maybe three or four plays away from a better season than the one we had,” Oliver said. “Finishing ... making big plays at the end of games is so important, especially in this district and in 5A football because there is so much parity.”

East Ascension and Woodlawn are the wild cards. Woodlawn has installed a different version of the spread in which quarterback Charles Brooks has been able to thrive.

“It’s a new offense, but we’re all learning it fast,” he said. “I think this is one of the best districts because there are so many good players. Discipline is important. We can’t have turnovers on offense, and the defense has to get off the field.”

EAHS graduated a number of players from a team that finished No. 3 in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s power rankings last fall.

“We’re in the situation where we’re rebuilding and a lot of other people aren’t,” coach Paul Bourgeois said. “I’ve been in situations like this where you have a lot of numbers and you essentially reload.”

Can someone in 5-5A finish in the ultimate way and advance to a title game? Maybe?

“You’ve got to be able to handle some adversity,” Weiner said. “But this district should prepare you to play anybody.”