Tarpons, like the town they represent, resilient as ever

By By Albert Burford / American Press

CREOLE — There are only two roads leading to South Cameron High School from Lake Charles, and the main one is closed for construction. There isn’t much cellphone coverage in the area, which makes it difficult to re-route on the fly.

After a couple dropped calls and unsuccessful attempts at navigation, the front office worker at SCHS relays directions.

The school, a state-of-the-art building with a red brick façade, towers over the ground. So do most buildings in the area, even a hospital, propped up a few feet above the earth. After climbing two flights of stairs in front

of the school to get to the entrance, one can look out almost to the Gulf of Mexico.

Radios, not cellphones, work as the school’s method of communication due to the unreliable service.

On a Wednesday morning in late August, South Cameron head football coach Mark Delaney was out on the Tarpons’ field, doing the work of a high school football coach that goes unnoticed by most. He and some assistants were making sure the fields were lined correctly, the equipment was in order and everything was prepared for a jamboree the following day.

Southern Cameron Parish is a polarizing place — everything seems to be either brand new or a destroyed shell of what it once was. Most of the area was demolished by two storms in a span of four years, Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“After Rita everybody was trying to rebuild and get their lives back together and then all of a sudden, just

when they started

to get on their feet, Ike hits and blows everything else away,”

said South Cameron assistant coach Stevie Barnett. “My mom

lost two houses — and not just her, but a lot of people around

here lost more than one house. It’s hard to rebuild and from

my understanding, people just can’t afford to come down here.”

There are reminders of those storms

littered throughout the towns in the area.

Foundations sit with no building,

a couple wrecked houses rotting with all the furniture still

inside, jumbled as if some giant had picked it up, filled

it with water, shook it around and set it back down. These places

are abandoned and not worth the pain or effort of moving

back.

But some people have returned since the

storms, and they’ve dealt with significant insurance costs and numerous

building regulations

in doing so.

“With all the stipulations of moving back to Cameron with what the insurance has done, you’ve got to build up so high and

it costs you just as much to jack up a trailer as it does to buy a trailer,” Delaney said.

When South Cameron took the field in its jamboree, it didn’t put up a point in either of its scrimmages. Success has been

elusive for the Tarpons in recent years, but that wasn’t always the case.

South Cameron has played in four state

championships games, never quite pulling off a championship. Parry

LaLande played on

one of the teams that went to the state final in 1969 and went on

to coach the team in two of its other state finals appearances

during his 28 years at the helm at South Cameron.

“There’s a rich tradition of football down there from the earliest beginnings,” he said. “(Football) was big. It was the thing

to do.”

Delaney and LaLande share many of the

ingredients necessary for a successful high school football team —

impressive local

support, experienced coaches and players who bond well and are

ready to learn and top-notch facilities. The only asset LaLande

had that Delaney is missing is people.

LaLande said he usually had between 60 and 70 athletes on his rosters and sometimes as many as 86. Barnett, who coached under

LaLande, and Delaney, said there are about 85 students in the entire high school now, due to the mass exodus caused by the

storms.

“Everybody’s got their own niches and problems, but you don’t have the problems that a bigger school has because of bigger

population and different backgrounds,” Delaney said. “Over here, everybody knows each other. That makes it ideal.”

Despite the lack of numbers, the

influence of South Cameron football is apparent and widespread. Go to

football games in Southwest

Louisiana and it’s difficult to avoid running into someone with

ties to South Cameron sitting in the stands, coaching on the

sidelines, or announcing in the press box. Displaced families are

all over, with many former Tarpons moving on to coach or

be involved with football in some capacity at schools in

Calcasieu, Jeff Davis, Allen and Beauregard parishes.

The priorities of a football program seem to change after disasters like the ones in Cameron Parish. Of course, South Cameron

is still focused on winning games, but after the storms, the games became about much more than the final score.

Barnett recalls the first football game after Hurricane Rita, when the Tarpons were playing at Barbe’s stadium, at a time

when something as simple and seemingly menial as a game of football was vital in uniting the community.

“We had no uniforms, we had nothing,”

he said. “With the storm, we told the kids ‘Take your stuff with you.

See you next week.’

(The storm) took everything. (Former Barbe coach Jimmy Shaver) let

us borrow their stadium and any equipment that we needed,

so that was a big plus. That was pretty special. That was a huge

step forward to get a little normalcy. I think our community

needed that. Everybody at that time was everywhere. The football

team really brought everybody together as a community again.”

Since then, the Tarpons have struggled, but Delaney, the third coach in as many years when he was hired in July 2012, is making

strides.

After a preseason that didn’t promise a

change from the Tarpons’ recent losing ways, South Cameron showed its

progression,

winning its first game of the season 50-0 against Gueydan. It was

the Tarpons’ largest margin of victory in the last 15 years,

and their second win since the end of the 2009 season.

South Cameron is at 1-2. It will be another uphill battle for South Cameron if it plans to return to the status of the Tarpons’

glory days. But that’s just another bump in the road for a resilient football team and the population it represents.