Wrapping up 2023, Chiefs travel to face Byrd

Zion Thompson tries to follow blocks and break free in his big night last Friday for NCHS against Haughton. (Journal photo by KEVIN SHANNAHAN)

By DWAIN SPILLMAN JR., Natchitoches Parish Journal

It’s a simple goal – finishing the 2023 season on a positive note this week.

“Finishing” was the key term in the minds of Natchitoches Central coaches and players this week as the Chiefs prepared to travel to Shreveport tonight to close out this season’s gridiron campaign.

NCHS will carry a 2-7 overall record into tonight’s matchup with a traditional northwest Louisiana powerhouse, C.E. Byrd, while owning a 1-5 mark in District 1-5A under first-year head coach Jess Curtis.

he overall and district records do not tell the real story of the Chiefs’ progress under Curtis this season. Unlike in nearly all of the last several seasons (2021 excluded) when the Chiefs have barely registered a competitive pulse, this year’s team has battled some of the district’s, and state’s, top teams down to the wire before yielding on the scoreboard. The Chiefs have been more than competitive in all nine games this season.

“I want to see us finish,” Curtis said early this week as his squad prepared to face the Yellow Jackets. “We have played extremely well the last four weeks but we just haven’t finished. We just haven’t made the plays at the very end to get the wins.”

The NCHS boss was referring to close battles where the Chiefs held the lead as late as in the last 10 seconds. Parkway and Haughton claimed victory in both of those recent contests by just one point each – in the final 10 seconds — while the Chiefs have lost the last four district games by a mere combined 17 points.

“The last few weeks, we have really outplayed the teams that ending up beating us,” Curtis said.

Long-time Byrd assistant coach Stacey Ballew heads up the east Shreveport club that will battle the Chiefs at Independence Stadium this evening. Ballew was a 21-year assistant with the Yellow Jackets before being promoted to the top job in April of 2021. Byrd has also been rebuilding this season unlike their results during most of the last three decades, but has the area’s most powerful running attack, its trademark triple option that is averaging 292 yards on the ground.

The youthful Jackets stand at 3-6 overall and 3-3 in the district but due to strength of schedule could host a playoff game if able to garner a victory against the Chiefs. Byrd currently holds the No. 18 spot in the Division 1 Select power ratings.

“Byrd is a very good program,” Curtis said of tonight’s opponent. “They will run the ball right at you and that is something a little different than we have been used to this season. Our kids will have to get their minds locked in because we have to be on point to stop their rushing attack.”

The Chiefs will be without senior wide receiver Camryn Davis who went out early in the fourth quarter against Parkway with an ankle injury. Davis, who had grabbed 63 receptions for 981 yards and 13 touchdowns had led all receivers in the state prior to the injury.

However, other players like AJ Scott, Dylan Braxton and Zion Thompson have stepped up to fill vital roles in the Chiefs’ multi-faceted offensive attack. Thompon rushed for 193 yards in last week’s game against Haughton.

The NCHS defense also deserves praise for standing strong against some of Louisiana’s top offenses this season.

Curtis and his Chiefs will look to finish the ’23 schedule with fireworks at Independence Stadium, much like the festive atmosphere of the adjacent midway of rides and carnival games that will playing out during the Louisiana State Fair in west Shreveport.

“I am very proud of our effort,” Curtis concluded. “Our players have worked very hard every week this season and our coaches have done a great job in preparation. We just need to turn all of this into wins beginning now.”