NEW ORLEANS — An inspirational magnet and a ringing endorsement by Louisiana sportswriters have combined to serve the Rummel Raiders football program well in its season-long pursuit of an elusive goal.
But veteran Raiders coach Jay Roth knows it will take more than a few well-intended words and a lofty No. 1-ranking by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association to claim the school’s first state championship.
Rummel (10-0, No. 1 seed) hosts Dutchtown (8-2, No. 16-seed) at 7 p.m. Friday in the regional round of the Class 5-A state playoffs at Joe Yenni Stadium.
The survivor will advance to play the winner of No. 9 Quachita Parish versus No. 25 Ruston next week in the quarterfinal round.
But first things first for Roth, whose 2009 team made school history by reaching the state championship for the first time only to fall to West Monroe, 30-0.
“There’s a lot of football still to be played,’’ said Roth, now in his 18th season as head coach at his alma mater. “But there have been many elite teams, players and coaches who have never won Super Bowls, national championships or state championships at the high school level. So, if it happens, it happens.
“All I know is we’re worried about Week 2 right now. I’ve had some great teams and great kids in the past who have never gotten past the second round of the playoffs. It has a lot to do with luck; it has a lot to do with fate.’’
In the words of first-century philosopher Seneca, “luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.’’ Fate is the supposed force, principle or power that pre-determines events.
Mix in quality players and outstanding coaching and the Raiders just might have the recipe to win a state title this season, a season that started in January when Roth placed a magnet on the lockers of his senior players.
“I thought we lacked a little leadership, so I challenged my seniors to step up and be leaders,’’ Roth said. “I gave them magnets with the words ‘The strength of the team is in the strength of its leaders.’
“Since then, this group has stepped up, and they’ve made everybody else around them better players, better people and better leaders. It’s special and neat to me because it started back in January. Back then, I thought something was missing, and I thought it was the leadership part and they have definitely answered the call.’’
For Rummel, it begins with senior quarterback Damian Wilson, who started as a freshman in the 2009 state championship game. Wilson, 6-1 and 215 pounds, has accounted for 21 touchdowns and 1,964 yards from scrimmage through 10 games.
But it doesn’t end with Wilson. Junior tailback Keith Fulton leads a balanced running game with 834 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. The defensive tone is set by senior linebackers Michael Kennedy and Terrance Jones, senior defensive back Damarius Crawford and junior defensive linemen Herman Thomas and Matt Kennedy.
Because of those players and other team leaders, the Raiders caught the attention of LSWA voters early. On Sept. 11, the Raiders were voted No. 1 in the weekly 5A rankings for the first time in school history and they remain atop the 5A rankings today.
“To be honest with you,’’ Roth said, “that has helped us stay focused every week. I guess it’s the fear of failing, the fear of being picked No. 1 and the next week you get beat or the next week you get beat. But, we’ve just kept it going on now for two months and guess what? We’re No. 1, so I keep telling them, let’s go out there and play like it.’’
In the past, Roth said he might not have embraced a No. 1 ranking, knowing the consequences each week of playing an opponent that wanted to knock his team off its lofty perch.
But he changed his tune this season.
“Getting to the playoffs and winning a championship has never been our goal until we got there in ’09,’’ Roth said. “It was always win one at a time, get to the third round and then we got to the semifinals three times before we finally got to the Superdome.
“This year is different because the sportswriters picked us No. 1 since Week 2 and our kids have answered the challenge of playing good football every week. We’ve had to. So, I told them in Week 1 of the playoffs, we’ve got a five-week season, let’s make this our goal, not only to get there but to win.
“It’s a goal now to where it was never a goal in the past.’’
On Friday night, Dutchtown stands in the way.
Jay Roth started at quarterback his senior season in 1980 and led the Raiders to an undefeated regular season. They were eliminated 17-10 in overtime by John Ehret in an epic second-round playoff game before 30,000 at the Superdome. The coach of that 1980 Raiders’ team? None other than Jay’s father, Easten, who now lives in Gonzales and serves as a color analyst for Dutchtown and East Ascension sporting events on Eatel’s cable network.
Easten Roth will join Rummel alumnus Kenny Trahan and former Raiders’ assistant Rick Gaille on WGSO-990 AM for Friday night’s game against Dutchtown.
“Dutchtown is a very fine football team,’’ the elder Roth said. “Very solid, extremely well coached. Don’t let their 8-2 record fool you. They are a solid football team. Rummel will have to play very well to beat them, if they can beat them.’’ Asked if he had a rooting interest, Easten Roth replied: “Even though Jay is my son and is the head coach at Rummel, you got to be fair and call what you see. You have to stay impartial, and you can’t favor anybody.’’