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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Razor-Sharp Focus Trumps Uncertainty

December 5, 2007

Paxton for The New York Times
South Plaquemines players in their makeshift dressing room, a double-wide trailer used only on game days. The school’s gym was flooded above the rims during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

PORT SULPHUR, La., Dec. 4 — The smell of gasoline fills the ruined gym each evening as a generator sputters to life. A string of bulbs provides thin lighting above the weight-lifting equipment that sits on a warped and abandoned basketball court. A makeshift dressing area for the South Plaquemines High football team spreads beneath one backboard, where floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina rose above the rim, 10 feet off the floor.

Sometimes on Sundays, when football practice starts late, the players do not wait for the rumble of the generator. Stepping carefully, they find their lockers with the glow of cellphones.

“They chased a raccoon out of here once,” Sal Cepriano, a senior lineman, said.

No one is complaining about the inconvenience and the occasional wandering critter. There will be plenty of bright lights and varmint-free locker space Saturday when South Plaquemines (12-2) plays for a Class 1A state championship in the Superdome, 45 miles north in New Orleans, completing a remarkable season of perseverance and indomitable spirit.

Paxton for The New York Times
Coach Cyril Crutchfield celebrating after the Hurricanes’ 56-6 semifinal win last Friday.

Little has returned to normal in the two and a half years since Katrina destroyed the tiny fishing, oil and citrus villages of Port Sulphur, Buras, Boothville and Venice in lower Plaquemines Parish, where the Mississippi River runs to the Gulf of Mexico. Football has provided an important symbol of resilience and renewal along the southern end of this vital but isolated and vulnerable peninsula.

“Football is the only thing that will bring this community together; there’s nothing else here,” said Corey Buie, an assistant coach and the recreation director of Plaquemines Parish.

South Plaquemines, a consolidated school formed in 2006, plays football among Louisiana’s smallest high schools. It is located in temporary buildings on the wrecked campus of Port Sulphur High. Devastation from the storm has been reshaped into defiance. The team is called the Hurricanes, and campus walkways are named Hurricane Alley, Katrina Way and Rita Way.

A year ago, the Hurricanes made the playoffs despite traveling 60 miles round trip to practice and lacking a locker room, a home field and even a school cafeteria for much of the season. This season brought higher expectations, and South Plaquemines responded with Louisiana’s most prolific quarterback, its leading receiver and one of its most resourceful running backs.

Two hurricane seasons have come and gone quietly since Katrina brought its 28-foot storm surge. Perhaps half of the 3,000 prestorm residents and most of the small businesses have returned to Port Sulphur: the doughnut shop and the dollar stores, and Delta Drugs and the Cajun Kitchen. But this has been a double-wide recovery, almost everything in trailers or modular buildings, lending a feel of impermanence and uncertainty.

A third of the team’s 38 players began the season still living in FEMA trailers. Mike Barthelemy, a freshman linebacker, sleeps on an air mattress as his family awaits its rebuilding grant from the state. Shane Dinette, a senior running back, commutes about 50 miles each way from the New Orleans suburb of Harvey, rather than live in a trailer behind his mother’s restaurant, five minutes from school.

“Too depressing,” he said.

Many nights after practice, Coach Cyril Crutchfield spends an hour on his school bus route, driving south to drop players in Buras and Boothville. The parish plans to relocate South Plaquemines High in Buras, but there is no school there now and little sign of recovery. Only the front steps remain to the home of Cantrell Riley, the state’s leading receiver

The Buras fire station has no walls. The Delta Food Mart resembles a movie set with its skeletal facade. Curtains sway through blown-out windows of the library. Sixteen coffins remain unidentified at Our Lady of Good Harbor cemetery. They rest in cement vaults, strapped to the ground so they will not float away again in another storm.

Highway 23 is the only road in and out of lower Plaquemines. The Mississippi flows behind one levee, and the gulf behind another. Katrina’s wrath is evident in the telephone poles that lean as if exhausted and in the arthritic trees shorn of leaves and branches.

Every day, Crutchfield, who won a Class 1A state title at Port Sulphur High in 2002, sees the punch-drunk homes and staggered buildings and driveways that lead to nothing but cement slabs. This is why he feels such urgency to win Saturday against West St. John High, whose coach, Laury Dupont, is seeking to retire with a fourth championship.

“Tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Crutchfield told his players. “We don’t know what will happen when the Gulf water turns warm and the wind starts to blow.”

South Plaquemines has played ferociously, losing only to schools with four times its enrollment of about 190 students. The Hurricanes, who use a spread offense and an attacking defense, scored 60 points in the first quarter of their opening playoff game. Only once in their last 10 games have they scored fewer than 54 points.

Ridge Turner, a junior quarterback, has set a state single-season record with 5,240 combined passing and rushing yards and has accounted for 64 touchdowns. This is more yardage than Terry Bradshaw, Peyton Manning or any other Louisiana high school quarterback produced in a season, and all of it was inadvertent.

Until Katrina struck, Turner was a defensive back at Port Sulphur High. He became a quarterback only when the storm-tossed Randall Mackey moved 300 miles north to Bastrop, where he will play for a third consecutive Class 4A state championship Saturday (the first was revoked when Mackey was deemed to have been illegally recruited).

Paxton for The New York Times
Lyle Fitte has scored 46 touchdowns. His brothers, Beau and Evan, are also on the team.

The fact that Turner is playing at all is something of long shot. From age 6, he was reared by an aunt, Elouise Turner, as his mother battled drug addiction. Until then, Ridge said, he was sometimes left alone at night with his dog, Sandy, and by age 4 or 5 he learned to fry shrimp so that he would have something to fill his stomach.

“His aunt is a saint; she saved Ridge,” said Wayne Williamson, a sheriff’s deputy whose son, Wayne Jr., is a defensive back. “There’s no telling where he would be.”

Last season, Elouise Turner told Ridge he could no longer play football after he brought home a failing grade on a report card. She reconsidered, she said, because, “we already lost our home.”

“Losing football would be losing everything,” she said.

Turner’s grades have improved, as has his ability to read defenses. His favorite receiver is Riley, a whippet-thin senior who was born with a left leg so bowed that the tibia had to be broken and reset. Some of his teammates call him Crazy Legs.

On Oct. 19, Riley’s season appeared to be in jeopardy when he injured his right knee while returning a kickoff. An orthopedist examined him on the sideline and told Riley that he had a torn ligament and should remain inactive for four to six weeks.

Riley stalked away, got a second opinion, bought a knee brace at a sporting goods store and kept playing. He finished the regular season with 57 receptions for 1,098 yards — both first in the state. Then, as the playoffs began, he considered quitting the team.

Although three wrecked schools are now combined at South Plaquemines, rivalries persist at some level. Riley felt that players from Port Sulphur received too much praise, while those from Buras and Boothville were too often criticized or ignored.

He and his mother spoke with Crutchfield, and the tension was defused. Also a cornerback, Riley has intercepted 10 passes in four playoff games. In a 56-6 semifinal victory last Friday, he caught two touchdown passes and made three interceptions. Afterward, Jeanitta Ancar, whose son Jordan is an offensive tackle, hugged Riley and said, “We love you no matter where you’re from.”

Surely, the Hurricanes would not have reached the championship game without the Fitte brothers, who returned here last spring after attending schools in Belle Chasse in northern Plaquemines Parish. Lyle Fitte, a junior running back, has scored 46 touchdowns on rushes, receptions and kick returns. Beau Fitte is an all-league freshman defensive end. Evan Fitte, also a freshman, is a starting receiver.

“My mother didn’t want to come back at first,” Lyle Fitte said. “She thought the storms would get worse. But I wanted to bring my family together.”

Lyle has lived in a trailer on his grandparents’ property, rising early several mornings a week to run sprints up the Mississippi River levee just beyond his door. Finally, last week, Habitat for Humanity presented the keys to his mother’s new home here.

“You can move around down here,” Beau Fitte said. “Ride your four-wheeler, go hunting in the backyard. Maybe if we win the state championship, more people will come back.”

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