There was palpable, very real excitement at Holy Cross.
State Championship coach Nick Saltaformaggio returned to his alma mater.
After all, Saltagormaggio, a tiger for life, has left an excellent program of tigers in Hahnville to accept the calling to the tradition of a holy cross.
Saltaformaggio took Hahnville to a 5A state championship in 2017, after leading East Jefferson to a 4A state championship in 2013.
The pandemic struck.
First, there was murmurs from the Holy Cross holding training sessions against LHSAA rules.
That turned out not to be true, but it was a distraction.
The distraction from the pandemic was enough in itself.
Then came the real challenge of playing in the Catholic League.
The first year did not go as planned for Saltaformaggio.
The Tigers struggled to a 1-6 record and struggled to hold back opponents.
After starting with an impressive 56-7 win over their old rival Chalmette, the Tigers didn’t win again, averaging 47.2 points per game in their six losses. Holy Cross gave up 56 points or more in three of those losses.
The kids are working hard to improve, Saltaformaggio said. The attitude is excellent. Nobody accepts what happened last year.
While defense needs to improve, offense can help.
To that end, Saltaformaggio returns to his roots, planted in East Jefferson, where he guided an undefeated team on a punishing run game with the double slot, triple option.
I really think we will be much better than people think, but we are a considerably young team, said Saltaformaggio. We only have 11 seniors. It takes a page from Coach JT Curtis’ playbook. You can start the offense early, in the fifth grade, and identify children by the position they will live in for seven years. It’s a tough job, playing from a short card game with school numbers down and a small upper class. We think it will help us.
The concept of playing football and shortening the game and the number of snaps a defense plays is a good idea.
We didn’t stop anyone last year, Saltaformaggio said. We gave away a lot of points. Running the ball takes less snaps for our defense, which should help.
10 players who started games a year ago will return, including six seniors on the attack.
Yet it is a very young team with six sophomores and two freshmen on the schedule.
The Tigers have to replace a three-year starter quarterback in John Dade Wooten, a great athlete in Jalen Johnson, another good athlete in Amiri Franklin, a very good running back in Jaden Handy and an excellent defensive lineman in Barryn Sorrels.
The quarterback spot is manned by senior Eli Lafrance (5-9, 185), who will also be in the slot at times, along with sophomore Cole Canatella (6-0, 165), who has a bright future ahead of him.
We have two guys in Lafrance, who have moved from defence, and Canatella, who will both play, Saltaformaggio said. Cole is more refined on the position. He must make the adjustment from below the center outwards. He is athletic and has grown bigger and stronger. Eli is the more athletic player. Both will get a boatload of snaps early on.
The other running backs are juniors Christian Nunnery (5-6, 170) and Cooper Couvillion (6-0, 190), along with freshman Finn Martin (5-10, 155). Nunnery gained solid experience a year ago.
Our dip back is Couvillion, who was quarterback last year, Saltaformaggio said. He was more of a running quarterback. He played some receiver for us last year. Claude Johnson is a freshman who can contribute early. Martin is a freshman and he is going to be an exceptional player. Nunnery had some quality for us last year.
Sophomore Krosse Johnson (6-0, 155) starts at wide receiver, while sophomore Hayden Barnes (6-2, 205) is the tight end.
Johnson has exceptional speed and Hayden has a chance to become an outstanding footballer, Saltaformaggio said. Kolby Young (6-1, 180) is a transfer from Jesuit, who is going to be a sophomore. He is the younger brother of Kalija Lipscomb and he has a large net worth. Cameron King (6-2, 220) may also be able to help us. He’s had a great summer.
Up front, the Tigers are experienced, the strongest part of the attack with four senior players who started games back last year to bolster the new run-oriented attack.
Center Cole Baiamonte (5-11, 250) is a standout and he is joined by Beau Verdin (6-1, 260), Austin Boozer (6-0, 260), Seabastion Clayton (5-10, 240) and a new starter at senior Jacob Guiterrez (6-0, 250).
We’re not big up front, but we’re experienced, Saltaformaggio said. We are going to block the corners and use formations to create chances. This suits our program best. It’s not an easy offense to prepare for.
Amazingly, no one scheduled to start defending is a senior.
I don’t know how much better we will be on defense with such a young couple, but we will grow with young players, said Saltaformaggio.
Although the defense has less experience, the strength of that unit also lies up front where three juniors return who started games last season.
We hired a lot of good coaches and I handed the defense over to them, said Saltaformaggio. We have guys who played professional football and coached college football. I think our players will benefit from that.
Huge nose guard David Griffin (6-2, 320) will be hard to move, while defensive ends Ian Tate (5-11, 260) and Lance Williams (6-3, 275) should be very good.
I think our guys up front are good players, said Saltaformaggio. Williams was a baseball player who played football and had an incredible spring. Tate played a lot last year. Griffin is big.
Inside linebacker, sophomore Trent Santon (6-1, 200) gained tremendous experience as a freshman and is already a standout player with a bright future.
On the outside, juniors Sawyer Vaughn (6-0, 210) and Jordan Johnson (6-4, 205) offer good height and size to cover ground and play. Freshman Nick Digerolamo (5-9, 170) will be the hybrid player, playing linebacker and the nickel spot. Sophomore Trent Santos (6-1, 200) is another to figure prominently in the plan.
Digerolamo, who is a good wrestler, has a very bright future, Saltaformaggio said. Santos is excellent. Johnson is going to be a really good player and a basketball player for us.
The secondary is a question mark, with all the new starters.
The corners are junior Darian Blount (6-3, 170) and sophomore Rece Gordon (6-0, 165) while sophomore Devin Woodson (5-11, 160) and Jake Roberts (5-9, 165) are safe.
Blount played for us a bit last year, said Saltaformaggio. He doesn’t have many reps, but he has a very good skill. Roberts is strong in safety and he is solid. Gordon has been transferred from Brother Martin and he will help us. We lost Brody Forstall with a torn labrum in baseball.
Armin Serjal is the kicker, while Collin Markey performs the punting duties.
The schedule kicks off on September 3 at Hoss Memtsas Stadium against a much-improved West Jefferson squad.
The challenge grows against an elite Division II team at De La Salle in week two ahead of the traditional rivalry match at Bobby Nuss Stadium against Chalmette.
It’s a challenging start, said Saltaformaggio. West Jeff is good, De La Salle is just excellent and Chalmette will be more than ready for us after last year.
District 9-5A begins on the road with Archbishop Shaw on Sept. 24. The two sides had canceled their scheduled match a year ago due to concerns about COVID.
The Great American Rivalry Series battle with Jesuit is October 1, live on CrescentCitySports.com and CST.
A non-district trip to Terrebonne follows before the Tigers return to the Catholic League playing at home at Tad Gormley Stadium against Rummel and John Curtis Christian. The final two games of the regular season are against Gentilly neighbors Brother Martin and St. Augustine.
This competition will humble you, Saltaformaggio said. There are great schools with excellent players and coaches. It’s a challenge every week. It was a humbling experience personally last year, but it’s fun. I enjoy the competition to play these people.
What does it take to turn things around?
We need to bring consistency to the program, said Saltaformaggio. I’m the 12th head coach here since 1986 and Barry Wilson was here for 10 years. Stability will be important. We need to find a way to get people to respect our program again. We want people to take Holy Cross football seriously again. It should be better than it is now and that is our determined goal.
The key for Saltaformaggio and Holy Cross is that young players gain valuable experience early on, mature and improve as the district play moves deeper into the season.
The hope is that Holy Cross will be a better team by play-off time and a young team with a very bright future.
Click here for more previews of CCS Prep Football teams (including archives of previews from last season).
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