by Doug Ireland
If we’re to get our sports fix by reruns for the foreseeable future, then basketball teams at Alexandria Senior High, Peabody and St. Mary’s in Natchitoches gave us quite the lasting impression.
The boys teams from ASH and Peabody, and the St. Mary’s girls, brought home state championships before the plug was pulled on competitive sports at all levels. Not that championship seasons aren’t remembered forever, but these will have an especially indelible place in Cenla’s sports history.
The Trojans and Warhorses made their dreams come true in an all-but-empty arena in Lake Charles, with family and fans eagerly waiting outside Burton Coliseum and thousands more watching on the internet.
The Lady Tigers also had a hefty online audience, but they did get to capture their crown in front of a couple hundred near and dear among the hanging-from-the-rafters 700 in the gym at Ouachita Christian High School in Monroe.
With eight state Coach of the Year awards in a 33-year career, St. Mary’s coach, Tom Collins, is believed to have more than anyone else, ever, in the Bayou State. His teams, mostly boys teams at Atlanta High, have won five state championships, been runner-ups three more times, and have 14 state semifinal appearances.
Considering that, consider this:
“I’ve never had a team play as well, as a team, as this one did.”
That’s his assessment of his latest state championship squad, the 2019-20 Lady Tigers, who captured the Division IV crown by upsetting previously perfect Ouachita Christian on its homecourt, 53-50.
St. Mary’s nearly got another trophy in the final week of competition. Collins also coached the St. Mary’s boys, whose 25-6 campaign reached the state semifinals.
The Lady Tigers finished 26-4, winning 20 of their last 21, including the last 15, a perfect 10 in district games.
Four seniors – All-State candidates, Maria Bienvenu (18.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists per game) and Emily Maggio (averages of 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 4.2 steals), along with Ragan Hale and Carissa Kautz – were the cornerstones.
Junior defensive standout, Jensen Parker, and sophomore scoring threat, Kenzie Lipa, played vital roles, with a cadre of other players contributing, notably Cameron Bienvenu, Kelsee Bienvenu and Maggie Gilmore.
It culminated in the ultimate test: at OCS in a steamy bandbox, against a 35-0 foe coached brilliantly by former St. Mary’s coach, Stan Humphries. Yes, the former ULM, San Diego Chargers and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame quarterback, facing the daughters of Natchitoches friends, including his niece (Lipa), and his sister-in-law, Lady Tigers’ assistant coach, Rachel Cunningham. The Lady Tigers came from behind with a third-quarter charge and held off the hosts to prevail.
There wasn’t a state title for the SMHS boys, but there was quite an impressive comeback in the Tigers’ 44-33 quarterfinal victory over Southern Lab. The Tigers outscored the perennial state powerhouse 27-6 after halftime – holding Southern Lab scoreless in the third quarter — but couldn’t overcome eventual state champ, Crescent City Christian, in New Orleans in the semifinals.
ULM signee, Thomas Howell, made a case for All-State MVP honors. The 6-7 returning All-Stater, in the bullseye of every opposing defense, overcame the attention to post averages of 27.1 points, 16.2 rebounds, 5.3 blocks while hitting 87 percent of his free throws.
“His effort, fighting through double and even triple-teams with two bad ankles all season, was inspiring to our team, and me,” said Collins. “We lost eight guys who went to the state finals in Thomas’ sophomore year and we slowly built it back up, around him.”
Ty Jones and Dane Files developed into perimeter threats to complement Howell’s dominant inside presence. The Tigers had a rotating starting five around Howell as they won 23 of their final 25 outings.
Putting the pieces together for one deep run into the playoffs is enough of a challenge for any coach. Doing it with two teams?
“It took a toll,” admitted Collins, ending his fourth season at SMHS after several years out of coaching. “It was joy-filled, but it was not easy. God doesn’t give you a task without equipping you with what you need to accomplish it. That started with great assistant coaches, Mrs. Cunningham with the girls and (former SMHS standouts) ,Jake Bankston and Tommy Mathis, with the boys. We were fairly well injury-free, and when the flu hit us, it happened between games.”
Collins paid special tribute to Cunningham, a state champion as a player at Riverdale Academy before four years at point guard on the powerful Northwestern State Lady Demon teams of the early 1990s.
“Coach Cunningham was a huge part of this success,” he said. “These girls love and respect her and have been under her guidance since elementary school. This was truly a dream come true for her, watching these girls maturing and growing into state champions.”
As he took stock on the spectacular dual seasons, Collins admitted not having the constant rush of competition would be a “hard adjustment” for him and his players.
“But you look back on the experiences we’ve had this season, and praise God. It’s been so special.”