Natchitoches Central wins battle of Mike Suggs assistants vs. Byrd

Jimmy Watson
Shreveport Times

What happened Friday night on the wet turf at Lee Hedges Stadium is likely to happen more and more often.

Two branches of the Mike Suggs coaching tree came together for a slugfest of undefeated teams seeking supremacy in District 1-5A. Byrd’s Stacy Ballew and Natchitoches Central’s James Wilkerson served together for several seasons on the Byrd staff on opposite sides of the offensive/defensive alignments.

It was Wilkerson’s offense testing Ballew’s defense with a lot of LHSAA power points on the line. The winner was Wilkerson, as Central triumphed 23-10 over a Byrd team that played for a state championship last season. NCHS, which went 0-8 last season, is now in the drivers' seat in the District 1-5A race along with undefeated Captain Shreve.

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“These kids have worked really hard since Nov. 20, 2020 and we understand putting in the work, day-in and day-out is what you have to do,” Wilkerson said. “This is what we want our program to become – to be able to beat programs like Byrd’s.”

Natchitoches Central (5-0, 2-0) did it with a stingy defense that didn’t allow the Jackets (4-1, 1-1) a point after halftime. NCHS also deployed a quick-strike offense that had two long touchdown throws from Brian Young Jr. to Justin Aaron. It also featured a lot of running by senior Caylin Demars, who wasn’t deterred by last season’s winless campaign.

“We worked hard this summer and knew we had to change. So, we changed,” Demars said. “I expected (to be 5-0). I definitely did.” 

Natchitoches Central's Caylin Demars runs the ball against Byrd in their District 1-5A football game Friday.

Suggs wasn’t at the game, so he couldn’t have been accused of cheering for either assistant. Instead, he was driving back from two weeks in Yellowstone and the Tetons with his wife in a celebration of his May retirement after 23 years.

Some of the branches of his coaching and player tree will come together again Oct. 28 when Byrd and Captain Shreve meet with former Byrd assistant Bryant Sepulvado directing the Gators. There’s also Christopher Wilson at Plain Dealing and Chad Lewis at Green Oaks as former Suggs assistants. 

And let’s not forget the late Richard Lary (Shreve), Huntington assistant Chad Abernathy, Byrd assistant principal Jerry Byrd, Airline assistant Brian Taylor and Marvin Harris, now coaching in Las Vegas – they all mined the mind of one of Louisiana’s longest-tenured coaches.

“Both of us absorbed everything Suggs was doing, and he served as a mentor to both of us,” Ballew said. “We won a lot of games together.”

NCHS has been one of the surprises of the season through the first five weeks. They’ve already won more games this fall than any of its teams since 2015. Wilkerson quickly set about changing the environment and culture and the dividends are paying off.

“I just thought I knew football until I went to work for coach Suggs,” Wilkerson said. “There’s nothing tricky about what he does. They found something they’re good at and they just refine it.”

Ballew also had a tough job following the winningest coach in Byrd history. But Ballew accepted the challenge of following a legend and the Jackets have hardly lost a beat. He and Wilkerson didn’t hang out much during their time on Line Avenue, due in part to about a decade difference in age.

Byrd quarterback Lake Lambert dives for yardage against a stingy Natchitoches Central defense led by Anthony Allen (58).

But following Friday’s inaugural matchup against each other as top bosses, they met at midfield and shook hands.

“Then he headed back to Natchitoches and I’ll head to Line Avenue,” Ballew said. 

Jimmy Watson covers Shreveport-Bossier area sports. Email him at jwatson@shreveporttimes.com and follow him on Twitter @JimmyWatson6. 

Byrd coach Mike Suggs' Yellow Jackets got their first win of the season on Friday.