DENHAM SPRINGS -- To some observers, the sight of watching Denham Springs take four-time Class 5A state champion Acadiana down to the wire in last year’s state regional playoff game before suffering a heartbreaking 38-37 loss may have raised a few eyebrows.
Just don’t tell that to the players who wholeheartedly believed they were going win and advance to what would have been the program’s first state quarterfinal since 1985.
“We felt good because we played them well, but we were also disappointed because we want to win every single game,” Denham Springs senior strong safety Hayden Horne said. “We expected to win. To be that close and lose like that was hard.”
It’s been the consensus around the program the near miss fueled Denham Springs’ offseason workouts, spilling over into the spring and summer.
Expectations couldn’t be higher, and third-year coach Bill Conides looks to improve on his steady building process by adding another layer of success in 2019.
“The silver lining of last year is that we played our best game in the last game,” said Conides, whose team finished 7-5. “We lost the game, but it was a huge stepping stone for us moving in the right direction. After that game, we were disappointed, but at the same time we felt like we were a quarterfinal football team in Year 2.”
A year after being eliminated by eventual state runners-up Hahnville in the first round of the state playoffs, Denham Springs showed it belonged on a bigger stage against one of the state’s true powerbrokers in Class 5A.
The Yellow Jackets, led by quarterback Luke Lunsford’s combined five-touchdown effort, built a 30-16 lead in the third quarter before the Rams showed their mettle by scoring on three straight drives and added a go-ahead two-point conversion for the game-winning point in the fourth quarter.
Denham Springs’ fate was sealed by a late interception, but a bright future that was paved by last year’s senior class has arrived for a team eager to maintain the program’s upward trend.
“We’ve kind of talked about taking it one step farther,” Denham Springs senior offensive lineman Leo Montanez said. “We took it a step farther last year, made it one round farther. We want to make it another round farther and hopefully get to the dome.”
In order to realize such lofty goals, Denham Springs looks to maintain a more even-keel approach to its season.
The Yellow Jackets began the season with a 3-1 record but dropped three straight District 4-5A games. They stood 4-4 and on the brink of not qualifying for postseason play before reeling off league wins over Central and Scotlandville, earning a No. 19 seed where they won at No. 14 Sam Houston, 17-14.
“We lost some close games last year and in our first year,” Conides said. “It’s like we’re there and it’s a matter of what do we need to do differently that’s going to break down that door. The kids have embodied that. It’s fun to watch because they feel like they’ve got a chip on their shoulder and have something to prove. We’ve been there, now it’s time to take that next step.”
Denham Springs has the components of another high-powered offense which averaged 33 points and nearly 400 yards per game.
Lunsford returned to full health in time for preseason camp after a stress reaction in his back sidelined him during the spring and summer.
The 6-foot-2 senior, a first team All-Parish and second team All-District 4-5A choice, broke the school’s single-season record for yards (2,753) and touchdowns (27) in his first varsity season. He completed 56 percent of his passes (166 of 297) and added five rushing touchdowns.
“It’s so important to have an experienced quarterback,” Conides said. “Last year he made first-year mistakes like a first-year quarterback would. He’s got that first year under his belt. I wouldn’t expect him to have any kind of nerves whatsoever.”
Brown commitment Alex Harris (senior tackle), Montanez (senior guard) and Lake Thorburn (senior center) help anchor an offensive line that also features a pair of juniors in Chris Smith (guard) and Trey Harrell (tackle).
Harris was a first-team All-Parish and second team All-District selection and Montanez an honorable mention 4-5A pick.
“It’s a huge role with a very experienced line with three seniors,” Montanez said. “Our main focus is that we’re a lot more positive. Our players try to pick each other up, to try and have the best environment for everyone to see.”
For an offense that’s produced 1,500-yard rushers on the legs of sole players – Tyre Golmond and Tre Muse (both of whom were All-Parish Offensive MVPs) – the past two years, the Yellow Jackets rushing attack figures to include more of a committee effort with Patrick Isadore (36-127, 2 TDs), Jase Zachary and Jaylon Jenkins expected to get carries.
Denham Springs also does not return a wide receiver with a catch from last season. The Yellow Jackets’ new-look unit will include senior Phillip Earnhart, junior Troy Golmond and junior Preston Holwager.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets lost their top two tacklers in Brennan Leblanc and Davion Nassri, but return four starters and some promising newcomers.
Senior Tristan Duhe, an honorable mention 4-5A selection with 131 tackles, moves from outside linebacker to middle linebacker where he’ll be surrounded by senior outside linebacker Kaydon Berard, junior defensive tackle Choppa Johnson and Horne in the secondary.
“I think we’re going to be better than last year,” Horne said of the defense. “We’ve got four starters coming back and we’re better and more experienced. With the new guys coming in, I trust them a lot. They’re doing well and showing out.”
Berard was a first-team All-Parish selection and second team 4-5A choice with 64 tackles, while Horne had 53 tackles and three interceptions.
The Yellow Jackets must also replace both of their first team All-Parish choices in place-kicker Jose Ortega and punter Josh Preston.
Junior Gavin Weidenbacher has garnered the top punting duties and junior Cameron Beall will be the kicker where second team All-Parish and All-District senior long snapper Alex Morrison returns.
“I think the thing we were missing last year, and we had some of it, but I think we missed some leadership which I do think we have this year,” Horne said. “I feel that’s something that can take us to the next step.”