Mike Tarpey had his struggles.
In 2007, his first year coaching the Ladue Rams, the team suffered through growing pains and ended with a 2-8 record. It is the worst season the program has endured so far in the 21st century. However, Tarpey and the program moved forward and got a little better the following year and since the 2009 season they’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the St. Louis area.
If you look at the numbers, it’s difficult to find a better record in the last ten seasons by a head football coach. Tarpey’s record at Ladue stands at 83-35. 2007 is the only losing season in his tenure and has guided the Rams five times to double-digit winning season. In 2014 and 2016 the Rams made it to the semifinals but came up short both times. This year they appear to have the talent to make it back and go further.
“[We’re] not what where we were last year, and you have to be humble,” Tarpey said. You’re not where you were last week. You learn, and you want kids to be excited and confident, but there’s a big difference between cockiness and confidence. You want to have a confident and humble approach.”
Ladue will have one of the better quarterbacks in the area in Jordan Jackson. A three-year starter, Jackson threw for exactly 2,300 yards, 22 touchdowns, nine interceptions and completed 57 percent of his passes. As much of a force he is in the air, the 5-foot-9, 155 pound senior is slippery on the ground. Jackson rushed for 673 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Take away some sacks, and he would’ve had over 30 touchdowns and 3,000 total yards. That was all good enough for him to be named to the Class 4 First Team All-State list as an ATH.
“He’s become really confident,” Tarpey said. “When you have that coach on the field, and the kids respond to that it’s a huge benefit at this level.”
Jackson had five assuring and fast receivers to throw to in 2016, but four of them graduated. The lone returner though is junior Dale Chesson who has tons of potential. He caught 24 passes and accumulated 316 yards and a touchdown, but will get much more touches as he will be a focal point in the Rams offense.
A host of fellow juniors will replace the likes of Jarrod Smith, Zach Bush, Evan Mack, and Tyler Love. Those names are Reece Rode (6-3, 200 lbs), Declan Curran (6-1, 170 lbs), and Jason Garland (6-0, 185 lbs). Garland was playing under center in the playoffs a year ago, but has converted into a wideout and has impressed Tarpey this off-season. Another receiver that has improved and ready to assert himself is DeMonn Martin (5-7, 140 lbs).
“We were pretty spoiled there,” Tarpey said. “It’ll look a little different. We don’t have the type of athletes we had last year. We got some kids that are playing in these positions for the first time, but it’s fun, and it’s all about putting the pieces together.”
Chino Davis did just about everything for Ladue last year. He rushed for 905 yards, scored 20 touchdowns and three through the air. On defense, he recorded 96 tackles with two sacks and four fumble recoveries. Not only that he was a leader off the field and a player that will be tough to replace.
Andrew Hunt, a junior who was involved in every game last season, will take over as the starting running back. He had 101 carries for 436 yards and six touchdowns.
“He ran the ball for us when Chino got hurt,” Tarpey said. He’s a downhill, hard nosed, old school football player.
The Rams do return most of their offensive line. They return four players that started all of last season, Carter Lambie (6-2, 200 lbs), Carrington Reed (6-1, 200 lbs), Kyle Schilling (5-11, 190 lbs), and Jaliil Swope (6-1, 315 lbs).
Defense is the Rams strong suit. Despite losing Davis at middle linebacker and a majority of their secondary, most of the front seven is back. Linebackers, P.J. Hensley and B.J. Buchannon each recorded over 80 total tackles. Cameron Meeks, another first team all-stater returns at defensive end. He accumulated seven sacks and 64 tackles last season. Lincoln Grench (6-4, 205 lbs) returns at the other defensive end and can step in as a linebacker. Swope starts at offensive guard but will rotate both ways as a defensive tackle.
The Rams love to rotate players in and out of the front seven as part of their 3-4 defense. They will have plenty more options with Rode, Alex Bernier, and Brandon West. Ladue had to regroup their secondary, which is where graduation hit them hard. However, Chesson and Jackson return as cornerbacks along with new starting seniors Martin at cornerback and Kalen Lang (6-1, 185 lbs) at strong safety.
Unfortunately, the Rams will be without senior Jaylen Sykes for the season. The six-foot, seven-inch 327-pound defensive tackle and offensive guard was a first team all-state defensive linemen in 2016. Undoubtedly that is a tough loss.
A couple of players that have the chance to become impact players are sophomore linemen Jelani Davis (6-1, 255 lbs), a defensive tackle and Brian Faulkner (6-2, 230 lbs) a defensive end. Both players saw time on varsity a season ago and are highly thought of by the coaching staff. Another sophomore is Mason Player (5-10, 145 lbs). Player is part of Ladue’s track team and clocked in as the fastest freshman in the state that took part in the 200-meter dash (22.7). He runs a 4.62 40-yard dash and look for him to help out the defensive secondary.
Finally, there’s Moses Okpala. Known for his big height on the basketball court, the six-foot seven-inch, 245-pound junior was playing varsity his freshman year, but in the offseason last year he underwent heart sergury and was forced to sit out. This season he’ll be back and has potential to be an absolute beast.
Ladue will be tested from the get go.
They go on the road to Fort Zumwalt North, the reigning Class 5 runners-up, who will be out for revenge as the Rams bested them 24-21. Next, they got Class 6 SLUH on the road as well, and Tarpey has never beaten the Jr. Bills. Webster Groves and Parkway Central follow as the Rams will host them at Kirkwood High School (home games for the season).
“We always tell our kids if you gotta face those kind of teams if you want to be where you want to be at the end. SLUH is a 6A team, and that serves us well as we get to the end of the season. You want to get through those games and be healthy. Last year we did
It’s a tough way to open up, but it worked wonders for the Rams last year, and as long as they’re competitive then they’ll be alright, according to Tarpey.
“That’s what we preach. We want to compete and win or lose if the kids are competing and they feel like they gave everything then it’s a win in the end. Our kids are smart enough. They understand the big picture and having gone that far two of the last three years, and they have a better understanding of that big picture wanting to play our best football in week 10, 11, 12.”