GONZALES — In a game filled with long touchdowns and other offensive fireworks, it was a scintillating special teams effort by East Ascension’s do-everything star running back that netted the Spartans a thrilling season-opening win over Plaquemine on Friday night at Spartan Stadium.
Moments after his team lost a late lead, LSU commitment Sione Palelei took matters into his own hands. The senior took in the ensuing kickoff, dashing past and through would-be tacklers en route to a 99-yard touchdown that gave his team a 38-34 lead that would stand as the final score.
The Spartans withstood a stunning early scoring flurry that included long scores on three of PHS’ first four plays.
For a team that lost four games by fewer than 10 points to miss the playoffs a season ago, it was a welcomed way to begin the new season.
“Man, I dropped it, but I knew I had to secure the ball. I looked up and there were only two of them in front of me,” Palelei said. “And I just took it. I knew we needed it. The key was our defense. I knew once we got that (touchdown), they’d handle it. ... So many close losses last year. This is our wake-up call.”
The Green Devils’ early scores included touchdown runs of 67 and 82 yards by running backs Preston Ross and Julius Maracalin. The third TD was scored when receiver Austin Mitchell took in a pass lofted about 20 yards in the air by quarterback D’Morea Wicks. Mitchell caught the ball in stride, outrunning Spartan defenders down the right sideline for an 80-yard touchdown.
Marcalin finished with 193 rushing yards.
The Spartans’ lone response during the early PHS barrage was a 2-yard TD run by Palelei, who finished with 133 yards.
After PHS stunned the Spartans with the three first-quarter TDs and a 21-7 lead, EA begin to seize momentum in the second quarter on the legs of Palelei and backfield mate Joshua Walker, who played more than usual with Palelei briefly leaving the game two times with minor ailments.
It was in that quarter that Walker scored from 10 yards out to bring the Spartans to within seven points. The score was followed by a 14-yard scoring jaunt by receiver Chad Hill to tie things up at 21 with 3:59 to go before the half.
East Ascension appeared to begin taking control early in the second half. After forcing a Plaquemine punt on the half’s opening possession, the Spartans took over at their 49 and marched 51 yards to the go-ahead score, with Palelei finishing with a scamper around right side that featured the senior running past run through tacklers to the end zone.
The Spartan momentum seemed sustained when, on the ensuing Green Devil possession, the suddenly spry EA defense stymied Maracalin two straight plays at or near the line of scrimmage. A fourth-down conversion led to an 11-play, 78-yard drive capped off by Maracalin barreling in from the one-yard line. The score was set up by a 27-yard strike from Wicks to Joseph Keller.
Fittingly for this game, the Spartans responded, EA mounted an eight-play, 67-yard drive that led to a 29-yard Adam Bosworth filed goal to again put the Spartans ahead, 31-28 at the 10:18 mark. Two plays earlier, Palelei put in a Herculean effort en route to a 38-yard gain around right end to the PHS 13.
“There were some disappointing losses last season,” East Ascension coach Paul Bourgeois said. “The (players) know, you don’t work hard in the offseason to come back next season and win games 65-0. You work to win games like this. We still have improvements to make, but the effort is there.”
Plaquemine coach Paul Distefano called the loss “disappointing” but said the team will emphasize the effort, fast early start and improving practice habits.
“It was disheartening to give up that kick return,” Distefano said. “The bottom line is, we’ve got to cut the mistakes. Our game plan was to keep the ball from them on offense, which we didn’t with the early scores, but I’ll take three touchdowns in three plays every time. Hats off to East Ascension. We’ve got a tough schedule, but they’re as good a team as we’ll play.”
Distefano’s team had taken a late 34-31 lead when Maracalin zoomed right side for a 17-yard TD with 4:38 to go in the game. It was short lived as moments later, Palelei responded with the game-winning return.