By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports
C.E. Byrd senior defensive end Isaiah Ford is thankful for football.
“Football gives me a feeling like nothing else I’ve ever tried,” said Ford after a Thanksgiving early morning walk-thru in the Byrd High gym, final preparations for tonight’s playoff against John Curtis. “It’s a different kind of joy from any other thing I know. Just the thrill of it.”
Ford and his friends get the chance to keep the thrills going tonight when the No. 6-seed Yellow Jackets, 8-3, meet the No.3-seed John Curtis Christian Patriots, 9-2, in the Select Division I quarterfinals at 7 at Joe Yenni Stadium, located at East Jefferson High School in New Orleans.
Ford played on an undefeated Byrd team of freshmen three autumns ago, didn’t play because of the pandemic in 2020, but returned last year and, as a junior, earned 45 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks, a pass breakup and an interception to make First-Team All-District 1-5A.
This year as one of four seniors to start along the Purple Swarm D-Line, the 6-4, 200-pounder has 59 total tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks and a pass-breakup. He had seven tackles in last week’s 49-10 regional round thumping of Alexandria.
No wonder football feels so good.
“Being out there with your friends, it just feels more joyful than anything,” Ford said. “I don’t really know how to explain it with words, but anybody who’s ever played in a football game knows what I’m talking about.”
To keep having all the thrills and feels, Ford and his buddies will have to stop a Patriots team that put together a start-to-finish whupping of Catholic League rival Jesuit, 35-7, last Friday with their rarely seen split-back veer attack. The last time Byrd faced that type offense was in the 2020 playoffs when the Yellow Jackets earned a sticky, stingy 14-13 semifinal playoff win — against John Curtis.
“One of those things where you have to account for everybody,” said Byrd defensive line coach Jalen Bowers, who finished high school football at Byrd in 2013 and then at McNeese in 2017. “Somebody on the quarterback, always looking for the dive, somebody on the pitch man. These guys (starting on the D-line now) were scout team in 2020, but they learned then. They know that all it takes is one person out of position, especially against an offense like this, and it’s a big gain or a touchdown.”
Wyatt Watkins, 6-3, 205, moved during offseason from linebacker/safety to the end opposite Ford. The two tackles are Ben Martinson, 6-1, 206, and Brennan Belanger, 5-10, 223, who moved from end last year to tackle now to make room for Watkins.
“We didn’t have the chemistry last year that we have this year,” Ford said. “But we’ve been playing together since we were freshmen; we’re all good friends. Since Brennan moved inside and Wyatt got on the edge, we’ve all fed off each other’s energy. If one guy makes a good play, then another makes a good play.
“A big reason I think we’re so good is (current defensive coordinator) Coach (Jason) Pope was our coach when we were freshmen,” he said. “He knows what our strong suit is and gets us in the best situations to be successful.”
Although Ford missed the pandemic season in 2020, Bowers said he was able to step into a starting role last year on “pure athleticism.”
“We talked during the off-season about technique and getting down to basics, things that would elevate his game,” Bowers said. “He’s done the work. Last week, he played everything perfectly, made a lot of plays for us on the backside. Our guys know that we might not be the fastest or the biggest, but if they play technique and execute, they’re going to be awfully hard to beat.
“These guys know what it takes,” he said. “They know that each time out, they’ve got to go 1-0 to advance. We’ve had a great week of practice. Leaving the field Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt they were ready. Every day, how they’ve prepared and battled all year long, how they’ve showed up the next day ready to go and get better after being in some battle-tested games, I think they’re ready.”
Since losing to district champ Airline, 48-28, October 20, the Yellow Jackets are 3-0 and have outscored their opponents, 141-13.
Contact Teddy at email@example.com
Division I – Select Quarterfinal
6-Byrd (8-3) at 3-John Curtis (9-2)
Where: Joe Yenni Stadium, Metairie
Series: Byrd 1-0
Last week: Byrd beat Alexandria 49-10; Curtis beat Jesuit 35-7
Rankings: Curtis #7 in LSWA 5A poll
All-time playoff record: Byrd 34-31-2; Curtis 176-22
Last semifinal appearance: Byrd 2020; Curtis 2020
Radio: Byrd (The Tiger 1130AM, 103.3 FM)
Notables: Like the last time these two heavyweights met, this meeting comes in the middle of the LHSAA state playoffs. The Yellow Jackets and Patriots last met in the 2020 LHSAA semifinals at Lee Hedges Stadium. Byrd won 14-13 … Last week, Byrd dominated Alexandria Senior High 49-10 as quarterback Lake Lambert — with the help from his offensive line and downfield blocking by wingbacks — put on the most prolific rushing performance by a Byrd quarterback in school history. Lambert rushed for 267 yards including five touchdowns. Meanwhile, John Curtis, led by quarterback Dagan Bruno’s two rushing and two passing touchdowns, defeated Jesuit 35-7 for the second time this season. While Lambert’s 267 yards rushing was the most ever by a Byrd quarterback, it ranked No. 6 overall on the school’s single-game rushing performances … Did someone say Bruno? The most iconic play of Byrd’s 14-13 win over John Curtis in 2020 was an interception by defensive lineman Carson Bruno. Byrd had taken a one-point lead after a nine-play 69-yard drive. There was just under two minutes left in the game when Patriot quarterback Tyren Taylor went back to pass on a screen and tried to throw the ball over Bruno, who jumped up and pulled the football down like he was grabbing a rebound. After intercepting the pass, Bruno added insult to injury by bowling over the Curtis quarterback. Bruno also gave the Yellow Jackets excellent field position in order to run out the clock against the Patriots. The day after Byrd’s playoff game against John Curtis, Bruno will close out his redshirt freshman season as a starting right tackle for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs … Last week’s playoff win against ASH was the first playoff W for Byrd head coach Stacy Ballew, who is in his second year at the helm. Last season, Ballew’s Jackets went 9-1 during the regular season before losing to Brother Martin 45-14. “After bowing out last year in the first (playoff) game, I’m glad we got this one,” Ballew said after the win against ASH. “I’m happy for our kids, our coaches, our school” … Ballew and his staff will stand across the field from the winningest high school coach in Louisiana history Friday night. J.T. Curtis Jr., who is in his 54th season as the Patriot’s head coach, has a record of 612-77-6 record for a winning percentage of .884. Curtis was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, and inducted into the National High School Fame in 2015. He is the winningest active head coach in the United Sports. All time, only Summerville, South Carolina’s John McKissick, with 621 wins, has more victories than Curtis.