Taking it to the limit: Notre Dame High School reaches state championship game for the first time

By Dan McWilliams
Photography by Bob Corte

Cookeville – Notre Dame High School’s 2017 football team advanced farther than any squad in school history, but the Fighting Irish’s 11-game winning streak ended with a loss in the state championship game Dec. 2 at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.

Lausanne Collegiate School earned its second straight title in Division II, Class AA, with a 41-13 win over Notre Dame (NDHS). The Memphis school finished the season 13-0.

Notre Dame (11-2) bested the previous school mark of reaching the state semifinals set by the 2014 and 2015 teams.

Irish head coach Charles Fant was gracious in defeat.

“You play the game to win, obviously, but for us, I have the best job in the world,” he said. “Our administration says, ‘Your boys are what’s most important, and we want them to be outstanding young men and God-fearing men and spiritual beings.’ I’m so lucky to be in that place. A loss here was a win and a victory. This was a victory tonight for us.”

Eric Gray of Lausanne, who won the Mr. Football award for Division II, Class AA, rushed for 281 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries and was named the offensive MVP of the game. Teammate Cortez Love, who recorded 12 tackles and two sacks, was the defensive MVP.

Lausanne reeled off 41 straight points after Notre Dame’s Mr. Football finalist, wide receiver Cameron Wynn, returned the opening kickoff 71 yards to set up the Irish for their first score. Dallas Brown punched it in from nine yards out, and Hunter Hill’s extra-point kick made it 7-0 only 72 seconds into the game, much to the delight of the sizable contingent of Notre Dame fans that made the trip from Chattanooga.

Jeffrey Watkins scores Notre Dame’s second touchdown in the state championship game.

The Lynx made sure Wynn didn’t have any more kick returns, as all of their subsequent kickoffs were short ones received by upbacks. Lausanne also limited Wynn to 12 yards rushing on 11 attempts and 17 yards receiving on four catches.

After NDHS made it 7-0 and forced a Lausanne punt, a high center snap left the Irish with a fourth-and-22 from their own 1-yard line. Hunter Hill punted to the NDHS 39, and Gray scored on the next play. Isaac Weiss’ extra point tied the game at 7-7.

Akil Sledge rushed 30 yards to give Notre Dame a first down at the Lausanne 35, but the Irish soon turned it over on downs at the 15. Passes of 31 and 23 yards and a face mask penalty set up the Lynx for first-and-goal at the 3, and Nyle Love’s run on the next play made it a 14-7 game.

Another high snap by the Irish, this time to the punter on fourth down, gave the Lynx a first down at the NDHS 35. Gray scored on the next play, and it was 20-7 after a missed extra point. That score stood until the half.

Good runs by Gray set up his own 20-yard touchdown scamper early in the third quarter to make it 27-7. His 12-yard run with 4:38 left gave Lausanne a 34-7 lead. A Notre Dame fumble led to a 41-yard Gray run with 7:20 left in the game for a 41-7 Lynx lead.

Strong running by Trea Johnson set up Jeffrey Watkins for a 1-yard TD to put Notre Dame back on the scoreboard with 1:18 left in the game for the final margin. Watkins finished with 63 yards rushing on 17 carries for the Irish, while Johnson put up 44 yards on eight attempts.

Landon Allen was 8-for-14 passing for 37 yards for the Irish, but the Lynx sacked him twice.

Monroe Beard led the Irish in tackling with eight stops, including two tackles for loss.

The Irish will lose several players off this year’s team, but have Wynn, a junior, and many others returning for next season.

“The mindset for us is how do we win the [state title] game, and what do we need to do to do those things,” head coach Fant said. “As we go through every single day, we’re going to have people in the weight room starting Monday — I know they will because I know these kids. We’re excited to start putting it together again.

“We’ve got some key players coming back. There’s no doubt. We lost 16 seniors. At a small school like us, a lot of times that hurts. But during our 2014 season, we lost 17. The very next year we were able to get back to the semifinals. We’ve got great kids in key positions, and now we’re just going to get our young kids better.”

Coach Fant said he doesn’t like to rank the 2017 Irish among his other teams.

Cameron Wynn carries the ball for Notre Dame behind the blocking of Parker Whiting.

“But I can say this: Nobody can take away what these guys have been able to do. I will say this: I don’t know if we had a group that’s this close,” he said. “Our ’12-’14 team was unbelievable. We had athletes everywhere, and they jelled together, and they still do things together. Seeing this group do the same, but just a little bit more because it was the seniors and the juniors and the sophomores and the freshmen all banding together, and that was really exciting. It was very unique for this team.”

Coach Fant said he was proud for his team advancing farther than any other NDHS squad in the state playoffs.

“This was the first time ever. When we first got here, there were only two semifinal appearances before. We’d been twice and now the state championship game in the six years we’ve been here.”

Coach Fant complimented the Lausanne coaches for limiting Wynn’s impact on the game.

“That’s coaching. They did an amazing job on our offense all night long. They limited all of our big plays, but Cameron’s going to bounce back. We’re all going to bounce back, and we’re going to be ready to play the next time we’re here,” he said.

Wynn said the Irish have unfinished business in Cookeville.

“This is the first time we made it to state, so next time we want to make it — next time go to state and finish it,” he said.

The NDHS standout had a message for his team’s juniors.

“Just come out next year and just keep working hard and come back to the same position and actually finish it and play the same team again,” he said.

Wynn said the loss “feels bad because I’ve got only one more year left. Basically the only thing I can do is to make sure we get back to this point and make sure, like I said, to finish it.”

After his opening kickoff return, Wynn had tough sledding the rest of the way offensively.

“They were keying on me a lot. I was just doing my best, but they were keying on me very much,” he said.

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