Ruston celebrates title year of work in the making, decades in the waiting

by Jerit Roser // Contributor

Joshua Brantley was still trying late Saturday to wrap his mind around the feelings and meaning of Ruston’s state championship.

“It really hadn’t sunk in yet, but I could feel it around me,” the junior quarterback said. “Just being out there and being able to celebrate with me and my teammates, I know it really meant a lot to them, so it just is what it is: Going down in history.”

In reality, the current Bearcats might take some more time and perspective to be able to better grasp the full scope of that significance.

Ruston reached a title game last December for the first time in any of their lifetimes, ending a drought that stretched back to 1998.

The program hadn’t won a state championship since 1990, long enough that not even all of its current coaches were alive yet.

“I’m really happy for these kids and this community,” coach Jerrod Baugh said. “All the kids and coaches that have been a part of this, whether they’re a part of this football team this year, I appreciate the work that all the kids and coaches have done for me since I’ve been the coach at Ruston. It has been a long process and a tough one. And it all pays off tonight. And I can’t be happier for these kids. It’s been a long journey for me personally. But God has been good to me and these kids, and they deserve it.”

Climbing the mountain to that level of history was a multi-year process.

Members of the Bearcats’ decorated — and now legendary 2024 class — played as underclassmen on 2021 and even 2020 teams that reached the quarterfinals.

The group helped lead several big steps forward by the 2022 team, including the title game appearance and a first defeat of West Monroe since 1990.

And all of that laid the groundwork — albeit potentially also ramping up the pressure — for what lay ahead in 2023.

“I think the team from last year accomplished so many different things for our football program in the respect that we accomplished some things that hadn’t been done at Ruston in a long time,” Baugh said. “Just getting back to a state championship and, you ask somebody from Ruston, it had been a long time since we had beaten West Monroe. And you pile all of that on a bunch of kids and they had their set of accomplishments.

“But I think part of what made this group comfortable coming back was the fact that they had already been here. They knew the trip, and we changed up a few things because they had been here. And I challenged ‘em in January and put a lot of pressure on ‘em — probably too much pressure at times, and I think they felt that early in the season — but they just kept on coming back to work and doing the things necessary to put themselves in the position to have the opportunity that we had tonight.”

The Bearcats’ 31-17 defeat of perennial power Zachary, which had been undefeated in its four title appearances during the previous eight seasons, kicked off the celebration for not only the current players, but maybe even more so for the generations before them.

Assistant coach Kyle Williams, a longtime Ruston, LSU and Buffalo Bills legend, hugged and lifted one person after another in jubilation.

And alumni watching both in Caesars Superdome and from afar took pride in the accomplishment many had never enjoyed, or hadn’t since their own childhoods.

“It’s a great feeling,” senior linebacker Jadon Mayfield said of a moment years of work in the making and decades in the waiting. “It means a lot knowing that we have trained hard and put in countless hours and time up there. It’s like a second home. We’re up there every single day. It’s just a great feeling ultimately. It all paid off, and I’m just proud to say that I’m with this team and we made our name as a state champion, a 2023 state champion.”