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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
NOLA stronger than ever after Katrina

By Gary Laney

NEW ORLEANS -- When Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005, it looked like a game-changer, maybe even a game-ender, for the city's storied high school football history.

Many of the city's schools never re-opened. Others came back as shells of their former selves -- even under different names with different missions. The traditional Catholic League broke apart as some schools struggled to rebound. The future looked bleak.

Instead of falling apart, Louisiana's biggest city, perhaps spurred by changes from the aftermath of Katrina, is instead having a golden age. With a bumper crop of prospects in the 2014 recruiting class and with three state championships out of Louisiana's five enrollment classes in 2012, New Orleans looks stronger than ever.

Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette is one of several New Orleans St. Augustine prospects to be receiving heavy Division I interest.
"There's no question, football in New Orleans and the area is on the upswing," said J.T. Curtis, the coach at traditional power John Curtis Christian, a 25-time state champion that finished No. 5 in the ESPN Power Rankings in 2012. "I think that post-Katrina era is over now. We're past that. We're not just getting people back. We're having people moving in."

And playing football. The New Orleans metropolitan area, with a population of about 1.2 million people, has eight players on the ESPN Watch List. Led by Leonard Fournette, a running back who is among the nation's top players the 2014 class, New Orleans is a football beacon less than a decade after its darkest hour.

"I think coaches and kids came back from (Katrina) with a sense of urgency," said David Johnson, a former head coach at New Orleans' St. Augustin High who now is on Tulane's coaching staff. "I think we came back from the storm and looked at it like it could all be taken away in a day. And that started to change things."

When New Orleans West Bank power Edna Karr beat Monroe Neville High for the 2012 Class 4A state title, it was the first state title for a New Orleans public school since 1993. Karr perhaps best represents the changes Louisiana has gone through since the storm.

Karr was coached by Jabbar Juluke, a rising young coaching star who subsequently left for Louisiana Tech. Juluke was a young assistant coach in 2001 when O.P. Walker, then coached by current LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, beat John Curtis, 20-0, to break a 136-game district winning streak for Curtis, a game some say changed things around the city.

New Orleans public schools traditionally played second fiddle to the area's private school powers. OPW's domination showed that it didn't have to be that way.

"I think it showed that it could be done," said Jay Roth, the coach at Archbishop Rummel in suburban Metairie. "I think a lot of public schools noticed that."

Under Juluke, Karr took advantage of changes in New Orleans' educational system after the storm. Now a charter school, Karr is able to draw players from beyond its base in the Algiers neighborhood. It had two ESPN 300 players in the 2013 class -- Miami signee Standish Dobard (No. 136) and Texas A&M-bound Noel Ellis (No. 206) -- and features ATH Speedy Noil and DT Gerald Willis III on the 2014 Watch List.

Noel Ellis
Texas A&M signee Noel Ellis was part of a strong crop of New Orleans prospects in 2013, and things look even brighter in 2014.
But Karr's success hasn't been at the expense of every other public school in town. McDonogh 35, led by veteran New Orleans coach Wayne Reese, reached the 4A semifinals. Warren Easton made the playoffs with a young team and has notable prospects in the 2015 and 2016 classes.

"The schools in the parish always struggled with resources," Wilson said, who named several "old-school" coaches who did great jobs but perhaps without the institutional help current New Orleans coaches enjoy. "That changed after the storm."

Several schools never re-opened. McDonogh 35 picked up players from neighborhoods who would previously had gone to other schools prior to Katrina. Karr and Warren Easton, both run as independent charter schools since the storm, did not find the same rules limiting coaching staffs and funding that held their programs back before the storm.

"What happened is, parents started having choices as far as what school was best for his kid," Curtis said. "And these charter schools have to compete or lose out."

Private schools have had a similar story. Curtis never stopped thriving. Roth led Rummel to Louisiana's Class 5A title behind Mississippi State-bound quarterback Damian Williams despite his school losing some 200 students off its annual enrollment since the storm. Another Catholic power, Holy Cross, has a new campus after its former home was destroyed by Katrina.

And St. Augustine, which has already had two 2014 players aside from Fournette commit to major programs (including guard Joseph Paul to Florida), has remained strong. Along with Curtis -- which has LB Kenny Young and WR Malachi Dupre on the Watch List -- and Karr, St. Augustine is one of three New Orleans-area schools loaded with elite talent.

"It's not always going to be loaded with talent like (2014)," Curtis said. "But I do think New Orleans is going to stay on the upswing. I think these programs will continue to get better.

"This is not a one-hit wonder."