Hunter Herring has earned his share of player of the week awards from various media outlets over the past few weeks. More accolades are certain to follow for the Ouachita Christian junior quarterback, who ran for five touchdowns in the second half of the Eagles 56-41 Division IV semifinal triumph over Metairie Park Country Day.
Catholic-Pointe Coupee shutout Southern Lab 21-0 in the other semifinal. Now that the Eagles know who they will play, two big questions remain. When, and more importantly, where, will the state championship game be played?
As the highest seed, the fifth-ranked Eagles (12-1) have the right to host the game. If OCS has its way, the game will be played as part of the LHSAA Prep Classic at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome the weekend of Dec. 13-14.
In a September letter to LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine, OCS coach Steven Fitzhugh stated that the Eagles would prefer to be included in the Prep Classic along with the non-select schools. Of course, the request was contingent upon the Eagles advancing to the Division IV finals as the highest seed.
Now that the Eagles have upheld their end of the bargain, the decision rests in the hands of the LHSAA. A ruling is expected Monday.
If the Eagles' request is granted, the game will be played in the Superdome on Dec. 13 or 14. Otherwise, it will be played on the OCS campus Friday night (Dec. 6) at 7 p.m.
Big Play No. 1
Friday night against Country Day, the Eagles got off to a slow start for the second straight week.
Justin Ibieta’s five-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Williams staked the Cajuns a 14-7 lead with just 1:23 remaining in the first half.
With the full allotment of timeouts at their disposal, the Eagles executed the hurry-up offense in textbook fashion.
Will Fitzhugh’s 17-yard reception on the fifth play of the series was good for a first down at the 33, and the Eagles burned their final timeout to set up one more play.
Herring, who ran for 301 yards on just 18 carries, made his first impact play through the air. With Eli Extine breaking toward the middle of the end zone, Herring delivered a strike as the horn sounded to signify the end of the first half. Samuel Harrell’s PAT tied the game at 14.
“That play showed Hunter’s maturity,” coach Fitzhugh said. “He was under pressure, and kept his eyes on Eli. They were in sync with each other. It was a huge play, not only because it tied the game, but because we got the ball to start the second half."
After coming out somewhat flat in the first half, one could detect a team-wide difference in the Eagles’ body language as they made their way back to the sideline after the break.
While Extine will not figure into the box score as prominently as Herring, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior was no less of a difference-maker.
Fielding the second half kickoff on the hop, Extine motored up the middle, and cut to his right on a 55-yard kickoff return to the Country Day 27.
Three plays later, Will Fitzhugh picked up a seal block from center Andy Weatherford at the 16, and dashed into the end zone untouched. Will Fitzhugh’s second touchdown gave the Eagles their first lead, 20-14, just 67 seconds into the second half.
OCS’ momentum carried over to the special teams. Hustling downfield on the kickoff, Kade Woods, Julian Stephenson and Kael Skipper smothered the return at the 12.
Three straight running plays gained only six yards, and the Eagles started from the 27 after Ibieta boomed a 55-yard punt.
A first down holding penalty backed the Eagles up the 17, but Herring picked up seven tough yards on third-and-six for a first down at the 38.
Dillon Dougan’s 31-yard run led to a first-and-goal at the 8. Receiving blocks from Brock Hogan and Barham White, Herring skirted around the right edge to cap the nine-play, 73-yard drive. Herring also ran in the conversion to put the Eagles up 28-14 with 4:56 to play in the third quarter.
The fireworks show was just getting underway.
Forty-eight seconds later, wide receiver Dylan Simmons took a lateral to the right side and delivered a 75-yard pass to an unmarked Tyler Williams to bring the Cajuns within 28-21.
Big Play No. 2/Big Decision No. 1
Extine’s fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff enabled the Eagles to maintain possession at their own 18.
Facing fourth-and-two from their own 26, the Eagles trotted out the punting unit. Following a timeout, the offense returned to the field. Sprung by a pancake block from Will Fitzhugh, Herring blasted 48 yards with an additional 13 yards stepped off for a horse collar tackle.
Parents, let this be a lesson to you — sometimes it’s wise to listen to your kids.
“I sent the punting team on, and as Will was coming off the field, he said, ‘Dad, we gotta go for it.’ I called timeout, and everybody was saying, ‘Let’s do it.’
“Hunter had a career night last week against Calvary, and he had another career night tonight. Passing for 300 yards is pretty incredible, but to run for 301 yards is absolutely amazing.”
A false start led to second-and-13 from the 16. Running behind Avery Pilgreen and James David Miller to the short side of the field, Herring took it in on the very next snap as OCS widened its lead to 35-21.
Again, it didn’t take long for the Cajuns to respond.
Simmons returned the kickoff 45 yards to the OCS 40.
An incomplete pass later, Ibieta took off up the middle, broke a tackle at the 32 and scampered into the end zone to bring the Cajuns within 35-28 in the waning seconds of the third quarter.
Will Fitzhugh’s 36-yard return gave the Eagles good field position at their own 46.
Two snaps later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Herring found a sizable crease to his right side and was off to the races. Herring’s 51-yard run brought the score to 42-28.
Country Day scored two touchdowns on its first three plays of the second half. This time, it would take the Cajuns three plays to score as Ibieta’s 42-yard TD pass to Williams trimmed the deficit to 42-35.
Andrew Lopez then boomed the kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, forcing the Eagles to start from their own 20.
Twelve seconds later, the Eagles were back on the board.
Herring cut to his left, slipped a couple of tackles in front of the OCS sideline, and finished an 80-yard dash. With quarterback tractor working to perfection, OCS padded its lead to 49-35.
Over the span of two minutes, nine seconds, the two teams had combined for five touchdowns.
“We kept running the same play (quarterback tractor) over and over, and they never figured out how to stop it,” Herring said.
OCS piled up 486 yards rushing on 45 attempts (10.8 yards per carry) behind the combination of seniors Grant Mashaw and Garrett Folds, and sophomores Pilgreen, Weatherford, Casey Cobb and Miller.
“It’s great to have young guys blocking the way they are,” Herring said. “I’m looking forward to watching them develop.”
Big Play No. 3/Big Decision No. 2
Up by two touchdowns with 10:41 left, the Eagles went for the coup de grace.
Trusting his son’s advice, once again, coach Fitzhugh called for an onside kick.
“Will influenced my decision on that call, as well,” coach Fitzhugh said with a smile. “Randall Bentley, our special teams coordinator, kept saying we could do it.”
Thanks to Extine, the onside kick worked. Wrestling the ball away from a bigger foe, Extine gave the Eagles possession at the plus-46.
“Winning the 50-50 balls was something we talked about early in the year,” Extine said, referring to a preseason interview with The Citizen. “I saw the ball go up in the air, then I pulled it out of his hands, and came down with it. I wanted it more than he did. That’s the reason I was able to come down with it.”
“Eli just took it away from their guy,” coach Fitzhugh said. “That, to me, was the momentum shift in the game that allowed us to get ahead by three scores. Eli played big, big, big for us tonight.”
Despite a holding penalty on the first play of the drive, the Eagles increased their lead to 56-35 five plays later. Herring’s 27-yard run and Will Fitzhugh’s 22-yard carry set up Herring’s four-yard run with 8:34 to play.
Country Day narrowed the margin to 56-41 on Ibieta’s sneak, but the 14-play, 64-yard drive took 5:26 off the clock.
Extine (who else?) covered the inevitable onside kick, and the Eagles finished the game in victory formation.
OCS, who won the toss and deferred, ran only three plays in a scoreless first quarter.
After Harrell’s opening kickoff bounced into the end zone for a touchback, the Cajuns took nearly nine minutes off the clock on the opening drive.
Fifteen plays in, on fourth-and-four from the 15, Walker Morris yanked the ball away from a Country Day receiver for an interception at the 9.
Following an empty possession by the Eagles, Scott Isacks backed into the end zone on a one-yard run from the short yardage package on the second play of the second quarter. Lopez drilled the PAT to put the visitors in front 7-0.
OCS then go untracked for a 14-play, 80-yard drive, which culminated with Will Fitzhugh’s 11-yard, game-tying run.
Country Day countered with a 12-play, 65-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead with 1:23 left in the half.
Ibieta, the Tulane pledge, lived up to his billing. He completed 16-of-25 passes for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Even more effective on the ground, Ibieta accounted for 153 yards and two scores on 20 carries. Listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Ibieta consistently broke tackles against what is normally a sure-tackling defense.
“He’s a great player,” Mashaw said of Ibieta. “He is probably the hardest runner I have ever had to tackle. A lot of respect to him.”
Williams also had a productive night for the Cajuns (6-5) with eight receptions for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Herring was complemented in the OCS running game by Dougan (14 carries, 95 yards) and Will Fitzhugh (12 carries, 91 yards, 2 TDs).
Pacing the Eagles on the defensive side was linebacker Ethan Hogan with 11 tackles.
Notes: OCS is chasing its seventh state championship with the previous six coming in 1985, 1997, 2000, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The Eagles have reached the state finals for the 10th time in the 43-year history of the program. … OCS improved to 9-4 in semifinal games; 6-3 in the Steven Fitzhugh era. … OCS carries an 11-game winning streak into the championship game. … Serving as captains were Tyler Williams, CD St. Hilaire and Justin Ibieta for Country Day; and Blake Pender, Chase Simmons, Walker Morris and Grant Mashaw for OCS. … With kickoff at 6 p.m. — an hour earlier than normal — the game ended at 8:24. … The game was officiated by the Baton Rouge Association.
By the Numbers
CD ………………………………. OCS
18 ………… First downs …...…… 23
30-175 …… Rushes-yards …… 45-486
238 ……….. Passing yards …… 56
26-17-1 ….. Passes (A-C-I) … 7-3-0
1-55 ……… Punts-avg. ……….. 1-14
1-0 ……….. Fumbles-lost …….. 1-0
2-17 ……… Penalties-yards …. 5-45
Country Day 0 14 14 13—41
OCS ……….. 0 14 21 21—56
CD—Scott Isacks 1-run (Andrew Lopez kick), 11:20
OC—Will Fitzhugh 11-run (Samuel Harrell kick), 4:50
CD—Dylan Simmons 5-pass from Justin Ibieta (Lopez kick), 1:23
OC—Eli Extine 33-pass from Hunter Herring (Harrell kick), 0:00
OC—Fitzhugh 16-run (kick failed), 10:59
OC—Herring 8-run (Herring run), 4:56
CD—Tyler Williams 75-pass from Simmons (Lopez kick), 4:08
OC—Herring 16-run (Harrell kick), 0:50
CD—Ibieta 40-run (Lopez kick), 0:20
OC—Herring 51-run (Harrell kick), 11:49
CD—Williams 42-pass from Ibieta (Lopez kick), 10:55
OC—Herring 80-run (Harrell kick), 10:41
OC—Herring 4-run (Harrell kick), 2:12
CD—Ibieta 1-run (pass failed), 2:53
RUSHING—Country Day: Ibieta 20-153-2. Ouachita Christian: 18-301-5, Dillon Dougan 14-94, Will Fitzhugh 12-91-2.
PASSING (A-C-I-Yds-TD)—Country Day: Ibieta 25-16-1-163-2, Simmons 1-1-0-75-1. Ouachita Christian: 7-3-0-56-1.
RECEIVING—Country Day Williams 8-157-2, Christian Daly 3-36, Simmons 3-19-1, CD St. Hilaire 2-21. Ouachita Christian: Extine 1-33-1, Fitzhugh 1-20.