BY MATT VINES, Journal Sports
NATCHITOCHES – Can’t turn the ball over.
For a Natchitoches Central squad that wants to control the clock just as much as its Week 10 opponent Byrd (6-3, 3-3 District 1-5A), that’s a pretty simple directive from Chiefs coach James Wilkerson as the NCHS seniors play one more time in Turpin Stadium and perhaps in their careers.
It can be much more difficult in practice.
NCHS (3-6, 2-4 District 1-5A) turned the ball over three times (a pick six and two fumbles) in a catastrophic three-minute stretch against Haughton this past week in which the Bucs dumped 28 points in that small window to end the first half of an eventual 56-20 Haughton win.
The Chiefs, much like in Week 8 against Parkway, traded punches against Haughton before “the stretch” in which the Bucs pulled away after a 14-14 tie through 20 minutes.
“It was the longest three minutes of my life I think,” Wilkerson said. “We have to learn from it. I feel that we have improved overall as the year has gone on, but we still have a lot of work to do to consistently to compete in our district year-in and year out.”
The year 2021 was an ‘in year.’
The Chiefs won their first five games this past season before taking on another undefeated team – a Byrd squad that had won 13 straight regular-season games dating back to 2019.
But NCHS upended Byrd this past season, 23-10, to move to 6-0 after finishing 0-8 during the pandemic year.
“It is always good to get a win against a program like Byrd,” Wilkerson said. “We have nothing but the utmost respect for that school and their program.”
Injuries derailed NCHS’ perfect season as they finished 7-4 with a first-round exit in the playoffs.
Injuries and then tragedy affected this 2021 season.
Quarterback Brian Young missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury among other injuries, and then the Chiefs lost one of their own when Robert Walker II lost his life in a UTV accident.
But the Chiefs have shown flickers of that 6-0 team from this past season as Young rekindled his connection with receiver Camryn Davis, and both offered their legs to the running game to complement workhorse Jeremiah Miles behind a solid offensive line.
The defense has had its moments, including a shutout of Southwood, the corralling of Captain Shreve and slowing down a Parkway bunch that NCHS led after three quarters.
Putting together four quarters has been a tall task for NCHS this season, but that’s what this bunch will need against Byrd.
If the Chiefs are to make consecutive playoff trips for the first time since 2014-15 seasons, NCHS will need a win and lot of help to snag one of the 28 playoff slots in the new Division I Non-Select bracket.
NCHS enters at No. 38 but just 1.24 points behind No. 28 Thibodaux.
A win against Byrd, paired with the strength points because of Byrd’s six wins, might be enough to put NCHS in the running for a spot.
One obstacle, other than Byrd’s power running game and usually stingy defense, is that two teams ahead of NCHS play each other – No. 29 St. Amant and No. 33 Live Oak. One of those teams will get a win and its 10 power points, meaning NCHS has to jump at least 11 teams in the power ratings, and that’s assuming that the other eight teams ahead of NCHS lose.
“Making the playoff would be huge considering where we were a couple of weeks ago,” Wilkerson said. “No what happens, I am proud of this team and the fight they’ve shown throughout the year.”
The game also has playoff implications for Byrd, but the Yellow Jackets know they’ll be packing their postseason bags.
The question is whether they’ll earn one of four byes in the Division I Select playoffs. No. 5 Byrd enters nearly one full point behind No. 4 St. Augustine, who must navigate difficult waters vs. Brother Martin this week.
CREDIT: Kevin Shannahan/Journal Sports