Why Westgate football under coach Ryan Antoine has more than just athletes
The drive for Tommy Balom from his home in Patterson to Westgate isn't short — 44 miles to be exact. But Balom, the former football coach at Terry Parker in Jacksonville, Florida, and now an assistant at Westgate, is willing to make the drive.
He knows what a "family" looks like when he sees one.
"I would rather be a part of this family than other opportunities that I have," Balom said. "If you've been a part of something or you see what's going on, you'll do the sacrifices because it's not about me, it's about those kids.
"From him all the way down to his staff, it's a family atmosphere."
"Him" is Westgate coach Ryan Antoine, who understands the core values in building up a program. He knows Westgate has — and usually has had — the athletes to build a strong team. But for him to mold his athletes into a cohesive unit there needed to be good coaching and a strong bond between the players and their mentors.
Antoine feels he has that this season and wants everyone to know that Westgate has more than just athletes.
"We've got kids that can play, but I think talent needs to get developed," Antoine said. "Talent needs to learn how to play together as a team. Talent needs to learn how to buy in. We don't just roll the ball out and tell our guys to go out there and just go make plays. We actually coach, we actually make adjustments and our guys actually believe in each other and our guys actually love each other."
At Westgate this year, the proof has been in the pudding. The Tigers are 8-2, and won its district for the first time in a decade on Friday after defeating Carencro 47-21.
Of course, they have the talent. Four-star safety Derek Williams — the No. 4 recruit in Louisiana's 2023 class — patrols the secondary and returns kicks for the Tigers. Three-star senior and tight end Danny Lewis Jr. is committed to Cincinnati and plays a variety of roles for Westgate's offense.
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But neither Williams nor Lewis are Westgate's first collegiate recruits under Antoine's watch. He's been with the program since 2006 and head coach since 2013, developing players like LSU sophomore wide receiver Kayshon Boutte — a five-star recruit.
"We feel that you can't grow unless you go," Antoine said. "We take them to colleges on Saturdays, we take them to different places to get better. We let them talk to college coaches. We go to campuses.
"We've got guys playing at Jackson State, we've got guys playing at UL, we've got guys playing at ULM."
Antoine doesn't pretend that he's doing this alone. Having multiple assistant coaches who were once head coaches — like Balom — on his staff was a purposeful decision. And beyond their experience as coaches, numerous members of Antoine's staff, including himself, also played collegiately.
Defensive coordinator Tyrunn Walker played in the NFL for five seasons and Antoine played at Louisiana Tech. Greater continuity within his staff in recent years, Antoine notes, has aided the program's rise.
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"I want (assistant coaches) that want my job, to be honest with you," Antoine said. "I want guys that are going to push me, I don't want yes men.
"I don't want to be the smartest person in the room. I feel like if I'm the smartest person in the room, I need to go find another room."
"This is just the building of a program," Balom added. "It's the foundation that he's laid, it's a brick-by-brick process."
Much of the credit for Westgate's rise, in Balom's eyes, belongs to Antoine — someone who he describes as a "big teddy bear."
"He wants to save these kids. He wants to give back to the community. He wants to make sure that they're successful," Balom said. "He's a dad, he's a big loving dad and responsible for 80 boys, year in and year out."
Following Westgate's 41-13 win over St. Thomas More, the defending Division II state champions, Balom was talking with a coach from UL's staff, complimenting Balom about how the Tigers' program had changed.
Now, the coach said, Westgate has more than just athletes.
"He came up (to me), he was like 'I just want to let you guys know, you have really turned this program around,' " Balom said. " 'You guys are coaching these kids. In the past, Westgate has always had the athletes, but they didn't have the coaching to compete.' "