Catholic High School offensive standouts JaDan Stokes, Ben Landry and Diallo Landry were freshmen when Catholic High School reached the state championship football game in 2014 and enjoyed the experience so much they vowed to make it back again during their high school careers.

The three have a chance Thursday to help the Panthers go one step further than that stellar squad in 2014, which lost a thriller to Calvary Baptist, 27-24. CHS will take on Notre Dame at 7 p.m. for the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Division III championship in the Mercedes Benz Superdome after vanquishing their recent playoff nemesis Calvary in the quarterfinals 49-28, then beating Isidore Newman on the road for the third time in four seasons on the road in the playoffs.

Calvary had beaten CHS in the semifinals in 2013 on the way to two straight Division III titles, the second coming against the Panthers, while CHS won at Newman in 2014 and 2016 prior to this year’s win.

“They’ve just had really tremendous careers here, being part of the semifinal run last year and now the Superdome run this year,” Catholic High head coach Brent Indest said. “It’s just something that I know they’ve always looked forward to and that’s been their goal.”

“It’s been hard work,” said Diallo Landry, who was a starter in the finals as a freshman and took over at quarterback as a sophomore after Jason Pellerin, the starter at that position on the 2014 squad, left for Ole Miss. “Ever since we lost in the Dome we always knew we wanted to come back. We had to put in a lot of extra hours in the weight room, off the field, at camps and just getting better as individuals to get back where we wanted to be.”

“it was amazing just being there” as a freshman, Stokes said. “This year I actually get to play in the Superdome. it’s an awesome feeling.”

Growing up

That 2015 season was a big one for the Panthers, with a lot of the sophomores who are now seniors taking a big step forward as starters, Diallo Landry said. Though the Panthers didn’t make the playoffs because a player was found to be ineligible a few games into the season, wiping out a couple of wins and reducing the team’s power points, the players themselves started to mature. 

“When we were freshmen, coach Indest will tell you, we were immature, but then sophomore year came, and a lot of us started playing, so we matured a lot,” Landry said. “Then junior year we had a good group of seniors who wanted to win and we wanted to win too, so we just matured throughout high school.”

Ben Landry, the starter at fullback for the championship game this year, said that seeing the seniors play their hearts out when he was a freshman in 2014 and the support from the community amazed him.

Landry was a starter on the junior varsity and played a lot on the varsity squad as a freshman, but didn’t get to play in the championship game. He started about half the season as a sophomore at running back before Stokes took over that spot. He’s continued to play and again is among the team leaders in rushing yards this season.

“Junior and senior year we just progressed as a team, and ever since then we’ve just been doing us,” he said.

A close-knit group

All three players pointed to the team’s unity as a big factor in reaching the finals this season.

“One thing that’s different is that our freshman year, the seniors would talk to us a lot, but this year everybody talks to everybody,” Diallo Landry said. “We’re friends with the freshmen, the sophomores, the juniors. The seniors are all best friends. We all hang out with each other. I think it’s just like a brotherhood.”

“We just bond so much as a team,” Ben Landry said, adding that the seniors have taken their leadership role seriously. “All the seniors, we’re together every week, every weekend, and whenever we can get the other guys, the juniors, sophomores, freshmen, we get them in the mix too. We love everybody on the team, regardless of who they are. We just bond like brothers.”

“Ever since middle school, this group of guys, we knew we would be great one year,” Stokes, who starts at tailback, said. “This is the year. It’s a great feeling playing your last game in the Superdome in the championship game.”

Just playing in the finals with his fellow seniors is the biggest reward in his mind, Stokes said.

“This senior class is kind of an enigma,” Indest said. “In some ways they’ll drive you crazy because there’s a lot of characters in that class. But I like guys like that. I’m a bit of a character myself. I like guys with good body language, guys who walk around with a smile on their face. Every now and then they will drive you a little batty, but it’s a lot more fun than dealing with a bunch of serious kids who don’t know how to smile and have fun.”

Talented trio

Indest said he knew the three senior leaders would be standouts as early as middle school.

“What those three guys have in common is they’re all explosive guys,” Indest said. “They’re kids that I’ve had my eye on ever since seventh grade that they were going to be major contributors to our football team. What they’ve done is they’ve taken that athletic ability, that explosiveness, and they’ve also turned into leaders, leading by example and doing the right things and just taking care of business week in and week out.”

“They’ve been a pleasure to coach since their freshman year,” Indest said. “We always felt that when these guys became seniors, as long as we had a good supporting cast underneath them, that we’d have a pretty special group, and that’s come to fruition.”

Rematch in the finals

Catholic High lost to the Pioneers in week 4, 37-0, but the Panthers are a different group this time around.

“We’ve just got to give what they take us,” Diallo Landry said. “They’re a really good team. We’ve got to match their intensity. Basically that’s it.”

The biggest difference between the team that lost earlier this year to Notre Dame and the team that will face the Pios on Thursday is the defense, which has allowed only a touchdown or less in six of eight games since, including three straight district shutouts. Since suffering their only loss of the season on Sept. 22, the Panthers have given up double-digit points only to Loreauville (a 63-14 win) and Calvary Baptist (49-28 in the quarterfinals).

“We had a couple of sophomores stepping up, and the defense,” Stokes said. “I think the defense is the MVP of the team, honestly. 

Indest was pleased to hear one of his seniors recognize the impact an improved defense has made on the season.

“One thing I pride myself in is trying to make kids students of the game and really understand the game not just from a player’s perspective, but more so from a coach’s perspective,” Indest said. “Four years with me, they really understand the game more than just a typical guy that watches games just on the weekend.

“Going into the season, we knew we were going to be able to score points. We knew we’d be explosive, but it was a huge question mark how good we were going to be defensively, and those guys have seen our defense grow from just not being very good at the beginning of the year to being pretty durn good at the end of the year.”

Ben Landry said he is taking it all in this time around.

“All the hype and everything, it’s just amazing,” he said.

He and Stokes also took time to recognize players who often go unnoticed by the general public.

“I love my offensive line,” each said.

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