Few doubting St. Thomas More now

LAFAYETTE — Kendall Johnson knew the doubters would be there again, perhaps thinking an inexperienced St. Thomas More team would struggle through the first part of 2013.

After all, skepticism seemed plausible, since Johnson was the only returning offensive starter and one of only two players back on defense for the Cougars, who won a District 5-4A title in 2012.

Making the issue more intriguing was the quarterback position where the two projected starters were sophomores, too young to even play on the Cougars’ junior varsity last year.

The Cougars are showing experience is not necessary, at least not so far.

STM (3-0) is undefeated and ranked third in Class 4A as it prepares to host Evangel Christian in one of the state’s biggest high school matchups Friday night.

Johnson, a senior split end and cornerback, said the STM players used those questioning their ability as a source of motivation.

“What’s happened is really not a surprise. All of us worked hard over the summer and then we have a retreat we go to every year (in St. Martinville) and we got together then,” Johnson said. “Everyone doubts us at the start of the year, but we came into the season with that chip on our shoulders. This year having so few starters (coming back) was a drastic step for us, but we knew right away that we would really have to step up.”

Johnson said the Cougars didn’t switch into victory mode without effort.

“Having two quarterbacks who were freshmen last season meant we would have to work hard in the offseason and this summer,” he said. “Every day at 2 p.m. the quarterbacks and receivers were throwing and catching the ball.

“Our quarterback, Will Bellamy is a sophomore and he really benefitted from that work. We knew that Bellamy had it in him, and he’s done a fantastic job. A lot of people might be surprised by what we’ve done so far, but the players here, they’re not surprised by it at all.”

Bellamy has completed 34 of 50 passes for 457 yards and a touchdown. Johnson has two touchdowns among his 12 catches for 223 yards.

STM coach Jim Hightower said he’s seen the Cougars experience similar cycles during his 27 years at the school.

However, the Cougars’ inexperience was a little different this season, according to Hightower, who ranks third on Louisiana’s all-time wins list with a 360-112-1 record.

“It’s not the first time we’ve been in this situation,” Hightower said. “There have been a lot of years where we had a similar situation, where there were a lot of seniors who graduated followed by a large number of players stepping up for the first time. What made this year different is we had a senior quarterback who graduated, so that made it a little scary.”

Hightower said STM’s success has made him proud.

“Being 3-0, now that’s surprising. I had no idea that we would get there that fast, although we do have a long way to go. I’m pleased where we’re at with this team, and the fact that we are making steady progress,” Hightower said.

Hightower said Bellamy has also moved into the starter’s role easier than some might have expected.

“Coming in to a starter’s role after playing freshman ball, that’s really a big step,” Hightower said. “Both (Bellamy) and Matt Gardner had great summers. Matt came in last week against Carencro and also had a good game. Everything he did was perfect,” Hightower said.

Hightower said offensive assistant Shane Savoie has tutored both Bellamy and Gardner.

Linebacker Michael Flores said the Cougars’ players were influenced by a team unity that he said is always prevalent.

“There’s always been good chemistry with the program,” Flores said. “The players like being around one another and playing on the same team. It’s been no problem for us to stay focused and play the game like we should.”

Running back Justin Suire has run for 287 yards. Suire said the offensive line helped give the Cougars confidence.

“We figured we would have to lean more on the running game since we were going to have a sophomore quarterback,” Suire said. “Our offensive line are all big, smart and they know what they’re doing.”

Hightower said for a successful program like the one at STM, there are always high standards.

“Everyone has expectations of success,” Hightower said. “Then again, our kids have great work ethics. There are high standards and high expectations for them and it’s a matter of trying to meet those standards, I guess.”