Union Parish turned runner-up finishes into fuel, lessons for magical championship

by Jerit Roser // GeauxPreps.com Contributor

Arguably the most doubted and overlooked Union Parish team of the past four seasons ultimately proved the one that managed to get back over — or power right through — the title-game hump.

Senior running back Jy’Marion Island broke tackles on back-to-back runs into the end zone in Friday’s final seconds for a touchdown to pull the Farmers back within one point of St. James and two-point conversion to lift them to the 36-35 victory in the Division-III Non-Select championship. 

“I’ve got a question: How many of y’all counted us in this year?” coach Joe Spatafora opened the postgame press conference, then laughed. “Not very many of ya. But, you know, as I’ve said all year, when you return them hogs up front, that thing still hits. And you saw that again today, as you continued to see through the playoffs.”

Union Parish entered the weekend as one of just five football programs in LHSAA history to fall short in state championship games to finish three consecutive seasons.

No school had ever lost a fourth straight, a distinction Spatafora said — emphatically so — didn’t weigh on him late in the tight game.

“Hell no,” he said. “That’s a record. I mean who else gets here four times in a row. If that’s the one I’ve gotta own, then hell with it, I’ve gotta own it. But I don’t get to own it. It gets to start back over.”

The Farmers insisted they were confident all year long that they would complete the mission this time around.

“We’ve got a special bond with this team,” junior defensive standout Tyquereis Wilson said. “We’ve been playing football together since we were kids, and we knew that this year was our year to do it.”

Said senior quarterback and defensive back Jorden Hill: “Because we’ve been fighting. It felt different this year. We’ve been here four years in a row, three years in a row that we’ve left empty-handed. I couldn’t go like that this year.”

Spatafora and his players said the previous experiences helped them not only in terms of their familiarity with the venue and atmosphere and the motivation to avoid the same fate, but also the details and logistics to help make the final slight difference between runner-up and champion.

“This started our first year up there, the streak started,” Island said. “It was just impossible for us not to do it, because we’d seen what the other classes were doing wrong. You can even ask coach. We changed different things. We changed bedtimes and all that. We’re focusing on this game today. We’ll realize we’re in New Orleans afterwards, but we’re coming here to take care of business. So I think a lot of changes we made this season really helped out too.”

The coach shared a story that the seniors made a decision and approached him about wanting all players’ phones collected at 4 p.m. every Friday for the hours leading up to kickoff and at 11 p.m. the night before the state championship game. 

Much of the outside uncertainty about the team’s ceiling centered around losing record-setting star running back Trey Holly, the state’s all-time rushing leader and an LSU signee, and his production.

And, in that process, Union Parish started 1-2 and lost four regular-season games, which matched their previous three years combined.

But the Farmers felt those ups and downs and the experience playing in close games, whether win or lose, helped further prepare them for the playoff run.

“The simple fact of the matter is these guys never stopped fighting,” Spatafora said. “No matter when they got down, they always fought. That shows you a true sign of character right there.”

All of those factors reached fruition and made the moment all the more sweet Friday as Island crossed the goal line for the second time in a matter of minutes.

“I was prepared for it,” the running back said. “I expected it. I thought we were gonna kick it at first when Jorden told (Spatafora) to kick it. But he put his faith in me, and I had to get the ball in. I knew it was our year all along. It was real special. As soon as I got in there, I heard that crowd. There’s no other feeling like it.”

And his predecessor, Holly, was there excited as anyone joining in the celebration.

“He’s about his business, but he’s always been a hype type person and will try to make you laugh when you’re down,” Island said. “That’s just the type of person he is. So I knew for sure if I got in that end zone, he was gonna be the first one in my face.”

Spatafora leaned in and looked over: “So Trey got me that penalty?”

“After all he did for us, I’ll take that penalty,” Island said.

And Spatafora agreed with a smile, “I’ll take it too.”