After Neville lost to Edna Karr 34-21 in the 4A State Championship Game, Neville head coach Mickey McCarty said it wasn’t the ending he wanted for his seniors, but life doesn’t always provide a fairy tale ending.
McCarty hit it right on the nose. That statement is true in 99 percent of all circumstances, especially sports. But then there’s that one percent. Like that one postseason run by the Sterlington Panthers that nobody saw coming outside of the people who sport those team colors. Heck, maybe a few of them shared doubts too. And then there’s a story within that underdog story that can make reporters, players and a head coach choke up if only for a moment at the post championship game press conference.
But before we get there, we have to start at the beginning. No, not the very beginning when Cody Seward made the tackle last football season that would affect his life forever. But instead, the beginning of the pinnacle of Sterlington athletics…
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome played host to the best story in the LHSAA this year, a Cinderella story that reached its final chapter. Coming off of back-to-back nail-biting wins against No. 5 Kinder and No. 1 Many, the Panthers swayed back and forth as they entered the playing surface to the cheers of a loud Sterlington fanbase. Sterlington belonged.
Meanwhile, Madison Prep took the field, rivaling Panthers’ district foe Ferriday in terms of size and athleticism. Averaging 6’2” and 310 pounds across the line of scrimmage, Madison Prep’s size eclipsed the undersized Panthers.
But for all of Madison Prep’s advantages in size, speed and athleticism on the perimeter and at defensive end, Sterlington matched it and then some with grit and toughness on the interior.
Entering the contest, the Panthers set out to run it right at Madison Prep with fullback Tyler Muse. It was a game plan forged the previous Sunday, but in order to be successful, Sterlington head coach Jason Thompson had to be confident in his offensive line. After a quick development early into the season, the offensive line blossomed into one of the team’s strengths and Thompson was confident in putting the burden on the blue-collar young men upfront.
Discipline and toughness created a grinding contest and a 14-14 halftime score. Suddenly Madison Prep was playing by Sterlington’s rules.
After the game, Thompson said, “We knew if we could get the game into the third and fourth quarter, we didn’t think they played in too many games deep. We’ve played a lot of four-quarter (games) and then some. We went to three overtimes last week.”
Sterlington rolled up its sleeves in the second half to grind out the victory, and what better way for the Panthers to win than by stopping Madison Prep’s dominant athlete Troy James just shy of the goal line on a two-point conversion.
The mentally tough Panthers did it. Underdogs for the last three weeks, Sterlington overcame the odds and won its first state championship in school history.
But what’s better than that is the story within. During the championship celebration, Seward collapsed, overcome with emotion. The Sterlington senior linebacker who’s been through more than most of us could ever imagine capped his high school career off with a state championship wearing the No. 48 jersey in honor of the late Franklin Parish player Tyrell Cameron. Forever connected to Cameron after last year’s tragic event, Seward won a championship for two. Seward’s journey — leaving the team, garnering attention from the likes of ESPN and several other major outlets and later rejoining the team last season after receiving support from two fanbases — put him in position to be a leader in his final season. Seward’s senior season wrapped up with six tackles and a forced fumble in a 28-27 championship win. He was active all night, all 140 pounds of him. Seward said after the win there was no better way for him to honor the No. 48 than going out with a victory in the final football game he’ll ever play.
Sterlington’s run to a championship and the “fairy tale” ending for Seward is why so many of us adore this game. There’s only one sport that can embrace toughness and tears as so. The emotional weight Seward carried for two football seasons reached its finality in the best ending imaginable — a celebration of accomplishment, an ultimate triumph over adversity.
Hollywood couldn’t write it better, and thus, sometimes on such rare occasions, life can indeed provide a fairy tale ending.