NEW ORLEANS — It wasn't easy for the Jennings football team on Friday night.
But it hasn't been easy for the Bulldogs all season.
However, just like they have for most of the season, Jennings persevered and found a way as they held on to defeat McDonogh 35 21-20 in a Class 3A state semifinal at Pan-American Stadium.
The win — the third consecutive one-point playoff victory — clinched Jennings' first trip to the state championship since winning it in 1992, when former McNeese State and current Louisiana-Monroe head coach Matt Viator held the same position for the Bulldogs. Jennings lost in the state semifinals in 2013 and 2017.
But they got over the hump this season to earn a trip to the Superdome.
"First time in 25 years," Jennings head coach Rusty Phelps. "It goes all the way back to my first year here with the players and stuff. I'm so happy for these kids, I'm so happy for this coaching staff, and I'm happy for our community."
McDonogh opened the scoring with a touchdown run from Ashton Jones to take a 6-0 lead.
Jennings responded with a touchdown pass from Lawrence "Bub" Wilridge to Jacorien Palfrey, and the extra point gave the Bulldogs a 7-6 lead.
Both teams had to battle some heavy rain in the first half, which Phelps said hindered his team's ability to pass the ball, a big part of the Bulldogs' game plan. The rain affected both offenses and neither had success.
However, Jennings extended its lead thanks to a Wilridge quarterback sneak for a 14-6 lead less than 90 seconds before halftime.
In the second half, it looked as if Jennings was driving to take a two-score lead, but in the red zone, Wilridge threw an interception. After a McDonogh 35 penalty put the Roneagles on their own 1-yard line, running back Steveland Williams Jr. took the next play after the interception 99 yards on a touchdown run.
Fortunately for Jennings, it stopped the McDonogh 35 2-point conversion and maintained a 14-12 lead.
Clinging to a 2-point lead, Jennings faced a fourth-and-15 with less than 8 minutes remaining in the game. The Bulldogs decided to go for it, and the gamble paid off as Wilridge found Trevor Etienne for the touchdown pass. The extra point gave Jennings an all-important two-score lead at 21-12.
"I told Bub, ‘Trust me,' and he trusted me," Etienne said of the crucial touchdown catch.
McDonogh 35, the No. 2 seed, didn't quietly go away, as Williams scored his second rushing touchdown with just under 4 minutes remaining. The Roneagles converted the 2-point conversion to cut Jennings' lead to 21-20.
When Jennings got the ball back, it attempted to go for it on fourth down to try and run the clock out, but McDonogh 35 stopped the Bulldogs who turned the ball over on downs.
Facing a Roneagles team with all the momentum, Jennings' defense stepped up and forced McDonogh 35 to turn the ball over on downs late in the game with the Roneagles' fourth-down pass falling incomplete to send the Bulldogs sideline and crowd into a frenzy.
"Tremendous feeling," Wilridge said about going to the state championship game. "It's so surreal."
Jennings will play St. James in the championship game next week.