WALKER - Even through a coaching career that hadn’t yet spanned two decades, there wasn’t anything in the coaching handbook that had adequately prepared Walker High’s Cecil Thomas for what was in store.
Thomas was entering his second season at the school where he served as offensive line coach and headed up the strength and conditioning program, an area Walker had made significant gains heading into a season with such great promise.
The Wildcats returned the nucleus of a team that had gone toe-to-toe with defending Class 5A state champion Landry-Walker, eventually falling 14-7 and spending the entire offseason pointing toward such a return with a better result.
Thomas served as the driving force behind the team’s offseason program that began last December, continued through the spring and into an unrelenting summer, where after one game into the season of great expectations, adversity struck.
Walker had rallied for a 35-18 road win over Dutchtown where the Wildcats flashed some of their tremendous promise. Sophomore wide receiver Brian Thomas caught three long touchdown passes from Ethan McMasters, and the defense put the game away with a pair of interception returns for touchdowns.
Less than a week later, the season had the potential earmarks of coming off the rails.
Three hours before Walker’s scheduled game at Broadmoor, Thomas was elevated to acting head coach when it was learned that head coach Lester Ricard and defensive coordinator Marcus Brown had been suspended.
Walker improved to 2-0 with a 27-6 victory, a game that marked a new role that Thomas would fulfill for the remainder of the season when Ricard and Brown both resigned for unspecified reasons the following Monday.
Thomas was named the team’s interim coach and the Wildcats never looked back, going on to finish the regular season with an 8-2 record, a runner-up finish to Zachary in powerful District 4-5A and hosted a Class 5A state playoff game for only the second time in school history.
For his efforts, Thomas was the unanimous selection as the Livingston Parish Coach of the Year, as chosen by his peers.
“After 15 years of doing it, you always prepare yourself for these moments,” said Thomas, whose team finished 8-3 after an opening-round exit in the playoffs against Hahnville. “You never know when those moments are going to arise. You’re always preparing yourself. As a position coach you should know the ins and outs of the offense. Throughout the years of being a head coach and assistant coach, and at the college level, you just get more responsibility on your plate and you’ve got to answer the bell.”
Because of his existing relationship as strength and conditioning coach, senior strong safety/running back BJ Lockhart believed Thomas was the perfect fit for the team during a difficult situation.
“He was already here, and we love coach Cecil,” Lockhart said. “He’ll do anything for us. It was a relief. We all felt better about the situation. He pushed us, and you have to respond.”
The result of the Broadmoor game, considering the time frame Thomas was given, was an example of his ability to lead the team under duress and keep it on task.
“The biggest thing was to make sure we had the kids in the right situation, make sure we had the right game plan for the kids to have success,” Thomas said. “The goal was the kids and to make sure they were ready to play and understood what we’re doing.”
Two weeks into a new season wasn’t the time to make any radical changes or alter the team’s philosophy on either offense or defense, so Thomas remained with the status quo and plowed ahead.
The Wildcats would still rely on a big-play offense that featured some of the area’s top skill players and a defense built on speed and aggressiveness.
“I knew where our speed was and obviously who the play-makers were, that’s a bonus,” Thomas said. “Our coaches had a great bond with the kids. We put the best game plan together, so the kids could understand.”
Thomas wasn’t a total stranger to being in control of a program and the steps that went into making a championship-level team which this year’s team aspired to do.
Following his college career as a three-year starter at University of Utah as an offensive lineman, Thomas remained in the Salt Lake City area and eventually joined the coaching staff at Cottonwood High School as an assistant coach.
After four years as an assistant, Thomas became the team’s head coach and guided Cottonwood to a three-year record of 31-7 and a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 2008.
Thomas’ credentials also included coaching stints as his alma mater and Weber State before returning to his native Hammond, where he served as head coach.
“He can get us going and pushed our buttons,” Lockhart said. “He knew how to do all that type of stuff and we responded well.”
Walker faced early-season litmus tests with Slidell and Parkview Baptist in consecutive home games, a pair of challenges that further deepened the Wildcats trust in Thomas and his staff, and showed they were indeed headed in the right direction.
The games couldn’t have been more opposite of the other.
A 40-38 victory over Slidell featured a combined total of 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Kolbe Moncree’s interception return for a score provided the eventual difference in the game.
A week later, Walker scored 10 points in the first quarter against Parkview and the Wildcats defense made it stand up in a hard-fought 10-3 victory.
Walker’s defense came up with a gritty goal-line stand and later had strip and fumble recovery – sequences that all took part in the latter stages of the second quarter.
A 5-0 start to the season included a historic 50-22 victory at Scotlandville, which is believed to be the first for the school, in the District 4-5A opener.
Walker’s quest for perfection ended a week later at eventual two-time Class 5A state champion Zachary, a 38-9 setback, in a game the Wildcats had several early opportunities to take advantage of turnovers but were repelled.
The Wildcats responded from their first defeat of the season with a three-game win streak which included a pair of come-from-behind wins over parish rivals Denham Springs (39-13) and Live Oak (27-10) before concluding with losses at Central (27-10) and to Hahnville (35-9) in the opening-round of the playoffs.
“The kids went through a lot and not just along with the head coaching change, but there were also position changes along the way also,” Thomas said. “Our kids are resilient kids and had a refuse to lose mentality. It was a fun year. I’m so proud of the kids. I knew they would respond.
“We obviously wanted more, and we don’t like being knocked out in the first round,” Thomas said. “That’s something we’ve got to overcome here. I thought for the steps we took this year and how we battled and the games we won, showed the character of our kids.”