Riverside, St. Thomas Aquinas coaches familiar with each other

Before he was a highly successful basketball coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Hammond, Errol Gauff was a young sportswriter covering the small towns of LaPlace and Reserve. That was quite a few years ago, however, so he never got to cover Timmy Byrd, who began gathering championship trophies at Reserve Christian School in 1999 and then started a new collection at Riverside Academy in 2010.

Gauff and Byrd know each other well, both on and off the court, however. And they will become reacquainted Saturday when their teams meet to determine which one will get this year’s state championship trophy in the Class 2A final at Fant-Ewing Coliseum on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Fourth-seeded St. Thomas Aquinas (27-6) will take on third-seeded Riverside Academy (27-5) at 2 p.m. It is the Rebels’ fourth consecutive trip to the final.

After winning back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011, Riverside defeated St. Thomas Aquinas last year to get to the final, only to lose to district rival John Curtis 57-48. This year, Riverside had to face Curtis four times — twice in the regular season, which they split; a third time to break the tie, which Riverside won; then a fourth time in the quarterfinals. Byrd won nine state championships in 14 seasons at Reserve Christian before the school closed in 2009.

St. Thomas Aquinas won titles in 2007 and 2008, and was a semifinalist in 2009 and 2012, all under Gauff, who left the media business after three years and became the Falcons coach in 1995.

Gauff said he didn’t need a reporter’s notebook to know what Riverside and Byrd are capable of on the court this season.

“He’s got another great team,” Gauff said. “They don’t just play a lot of guys. They play a lot of guys that can score 20 points per game. They’re young. They have one senior.

“So, we have more experience than they do. But when it comes to basketball experience, those guys have played so many games, they have a lot more.”

These coaches know each other well enough to know that Saturday’s game will be a hard-fought battle. St. Thomas Aquinas is a patient team, known for its solid defense. Riverside plays a more up-tempo game — most of the time — and also has a reputation for 3-point shooting. Riverside hit 11 3-pointers in the first half in the most recent game against Curtis.

“If they get hot,” Gauff said, not finishing the thought. “Our guys would probably like to shoot 3’s like that. They just have a coach that won’t let them. We play a different style of ball.”

St. Thomas is led by 6-foot-3 senior Cody Addison (16.4) and 6-0 senior Vincent Walker (12.5). Julian Brumfield and Hunter Gebbia were top scorers with Walker in the Falcons’ semifinal victory over Winnfield.

It’s a little more difficult to single out Riverside players. Byrd said, on any given night, any player can step up.

“That’s why this team is so fun to coach,” Byrd said. “They can adjust to any style on offense; they can adjust to any style on defense.

“We can step it up in some games and some situations and we can slow down and be patient sometimes. And they really play like a family.”