Hightower’s Cougars Claim First State Championship For STM
Jim Hightower waited more than four decades for this moment. The players for St. Thomas More gave their coach the greatest gift possible, a state championship.
It was STM's night from the beginning of the game. Nate Cox was on fire, and he ended up with 455 yards and six touchdown passes. The Cougars carved up Parkview's defense in the 54-29 win, but Cox wasn't paying attention to his numbers on such a special night.
Cox earned the title of Most Outstanding Player, and rightfully so. With his performance, he also broke the single season passing yardage record for the state of Louisiana, but he wasn't concerned with his personal record.
"I'll take it, but I don't really care that much. I would rather be called the first quarterback to ever win it for the team, to win it for Coach Hightower," Cox said with a smile. He added, "It's nice to say we'll go down in history and be remembered for it. We're just a bunch of goofballs, I really don't know how we did it. I'm just speechless."
It's the first state championship trophy for STM Football. Coach Hightower said it's their first but it won't be their last. He also indicated that he didn't have any intention of riding off into the sunset, so don't expect any sappy retirement speech any time soon. He's not done coaching the game he loves yet.
This championship washes away a lot of accumulated pain. So many other STM teams got close but never got their hands on a state title. Coach Hightower tried to describe the feeling he waited so long to experience.
"I've been awfully proud of the St. Thomas More teams I've been able to coach because the kids play so hard. We've had some disappointments in the playoffs, we lost some awfully close games. It felt like the breaks always went against us, but tonight we broke through, and this group was super focused," Hightower said. "They weren't going to be denied."
Not only did they win the state championship, they beat the team that denied them last year. They had to watch Parkview hoist the trophy in 2015, and they waited an entire year to reach their redemption.
Gabe Lebeouf, who rushed for 71 tough yards and picked up the score that pretty much iced the game, acknowledged the extra motivation the team drew from facing Parkview again, with a chance to heal their wounds from last season.
"Last year, it hurt. All of the juniors that knew we were coming back, we were looking at each other and hurting, but we knew we had another crack at it," Lebeouf explained. "All along, we looked at the other side of the bracket and we saw Parkview, and we kind of circled that name, and we got it done this time."
STM jumped on Parkview early for a 27-8 lead at halftime, and they forced the Eagles out of their preferred game style. Parkview hit on several big plays and finished with 388 total yards, but they had to throw the ball a lot playing catchup against an offense that simply wouldn't quit. The defense made a few key stops, and Cox and the gang did the rest.
It was a prolific and impressive offensive performance from the Cougar coaching staff, especially Offensive Coordinator Shane Savoie, and Cox executed the game plan to perfection. He hit seven different receivers on the night and tossed six scores to four different players (Griffin Hebert, Matthew LaGrange, Matt Gautreaux and Alex Hannie), picking Parkview apart up and down the field.
Hannie was the other shining star. Coming off a knee injury that affected him over the course of two seasons, he fought back to explode for 211 yards, ten catches and two huge scores. He played like a man possessed, but he earned every minute of the glory the hard way.
"It was a tough road to come back, with my therapists and all my teammates supporting me, and God helping me get back to it, it's a great feeling. It's been a long time coming," Hannie said emotionally. When trying to describe his mindset, he stated, "I wouldn't be denied. I wouldn't let anything stop me."
There was some speculation as to whether or not Hannie would even be able to play football this season, and Hightower made sure to praise Hannie for his warrior mentality and refusal to let an injury end his career.
"Alex said he wasn't sure if he would get back, but he was sure working like a demon to get back," Hightower shared. "He must have had some idea in the back of his head that he would get back, because he sure worked hard and he did an awful lot of that out on his own."
Hightower said his coaching staff caught Hannie several times, working out by himself on Saturdays, running routes and trying to strengthen his knee for a possible return. His work paid off, and it led to STM's first state championship. Take a look at the team's reaction, led by Coach Hightower, when they finally got their hands on the trophy.
Jim Hightower waited for years for this moment...and it's finally here. The STM Cougars are finally state champions. pic.twitter.com/lEnSTFjRMM
— Acadiana Postgame (@PostgameSports) December 3, 2016
It was difficult for Hightower to describe how much this team means to him. When asked what he will remember them for, he stepped outside the world of football.
He said what will stick with him forever was the week they spent away from football, helping the flood victims of Acadiana put their lives back together. A coach does more than teach football, he helps young men become better adults. The honor and effort they put forth to help total strangers left a lasting memory with their coach.
"That's where these guys showed tremendous character. They were so eager to get out and help in the community, and usually a bunch of teenagers just stand around with a job in front of you and one or two guys work and a lot of guys have their hands in their pockets, but these guys worked like demons for the STM family and the Lafayette family at large," Hightower said, beaming with pride.
As Coach Hightower mentioned, this is STM's first state championship, but it won't be their last. That being said, the first time for anything always feels the best. His players didn't want to win it for selfish reasons either. They wanted to do it for Coach Hightower.
Every lifetime is filled with a series of firsts. This is a first that Hightower will never forget, along with this group of players.
"That's something you can't take away from them," Hightower said with a smile. "They're the first."