LaGrange Gators head football coach Jules Sullen. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 8:06 PM
Prior to 2008, LaGrange Gators football seemed like a program in disarray. It hadn’t always been that way, though.
The Gators captured their lone state title in 1938 but remained one of Southwest Louisiana’s most consistently successful programs for the next 50 years.
In 1999, under the tutelage of former head coach Mike Johns, the Gators had one of their best seasons of the decade by winning the district title and making a run to the state quarterfinals. Spirits were high at LaGrange and their winning tradition looked poised to continue.
Little did anyone know that 1999 would be the end of the Gators’ dominance and the last year they would win a district title, a playoff game or a meeting with crosstown rival Barbe.
Enter the new millennium.
The Gators would not have a winning season for four consecutive years. In 2004, the Gators managed to reach the playoffs with a 6-4 record, but were quickly overpowered in the opening round.
After their brief stay in the playoffs, the Gators would have to struggle through three more years of ineptitude with a combined record of 2-24 along the way.
It was in 2008 that things finally started to turnaround for the Gators, thanks in large part to the addition of new head coach Jules Sullen. Sullen was hired at LaGrange to be an assistant to then-head coach Chuck Gorman, who had served in the position for the previous three seasons.
Gorman parted ways with the school just days after Sullen’s arrival, opening the door for Sullen to assume control of the program, a program he was familiar with having played for LaGrange and having coached at opposing schools for many years.
“When I was granted the opportunity to become the head coach at LaGrange my first objective was to turn the program around,” said Sullen. “We really wanted to focus on turning LaGrange back into a perennial force like it was when I graduated or how so many others that remember the dynasty that the school once was.
“My biggest priority as the head coach, though, was to develop a high school that has strong student-athletes both on the field and in the classroom, and we work very hard and take pride in having kids sign athletic scholarships to go to college year in and year out.”
In Sullen’s first season, guided the Gators to a 3-6 record, but thanks to the strength of their schedule, they managed to sneak into the playoffs with the last seed. It was in the first round of the playoffs that they ran into the Bastrop Rams, who were nationally ranked at the time. Despite losing 49-6 to the defending state champions, the future finally began to look bright for LaGrange football.
“Every year our goal is to make it to the playoffs,” Sullen said. “Some coaches are more focused on winning a district championship, but we are focused on getting into the playoffs because we know that any team can be beaten on any given night.”
Going into Sullen’s second season, the Gators had big aspirations for their experienced team. The offense returned a trio of offensive starters who had been starting since their freshman seasons in quarterback Derek Bellard, running back Darius Edwards and offensive tackle D.T. Flournoy. On defense, the Gators returned lineman Risean Broussard and safety Aaron Sam. Broussard would go on to commit to the University of Tennessee while Sam now plays in the secondary at McNeese State.
Sullen attributes much of his success to getting players on the field at a young age in order to have them gain experience.
“In my first few years we started a lot of sophomores and young guys, similar to this year, and we saw that the future was bright,” he said. “Those kids believed in the dream and mission we were on so they studied hard and went to class, so in the end the coaches guaranteed them some sort of opportunity to go to the next level, whether that be athletically or academically.”
That season the Gators finished 7-3 and went on to lose in overtime to the Alfred Blue-led Hahnville Tigers in the opening round of the playoffs. Their three regular-season losses came at the hand of Barbe, St. Augustine, which featured now-Arizona Cardinal Tyrann Mathieu, and Acadiana, which was led by future LSU defensive Micah Eugene.
“In order to prove that you are the best, you have to play against the best teams in the state,” Sullen said. “That is the only measuring stick that I have as a head football coach. Every year we play an extremely tough nondistrict schedule because it offers us the opportunity to be well oiled going into district play.”
It was in 2012 that Sullen saw his biggest success, though, as he guided his Gators to a 7-3 season and a share of the District 4-4A championship. On top of their regular-season success, they reached the state quarterfinals, giving them their first playoff victory in 13 years and Sullen’s first as a head coach.
“You can only imagine how exciting it was for the kids, and me as well since I got my first playoff win as a head coach,” Sullen said. “The atmosphere around the school changed completely. The morale increased around the school because students weren’t talking about what the football team did, but instead what we all had done together.”
Sullen and the Gators opened the 2013 season ranked No. 8 among all Class 4A schools, but lost to Class 3A state powerhouse Notre Dame 28-14 in the opening week. The Pioneers were one of four opponents that LaGrange will face in its nondistrict schedule that also features Calvary Baptist (No. 4 in Class 2A) and University Lab (No. 3 in Class 3A).
“We can honestly say that our program is on the way up, however, we understand that this is a very pivotal year for us with so many young guys playing this tough schedule,” Sullen said.
On Friday night, Sullen and his team will try to seal LaGrange’s first victory over Barbe in 14 years when they travel to Bucs Stadium.