WALKER -- For the first time in a long time, it’s safe to say the Walker football program is in strong enough shape to comfortable say that there aren’t a whole lot of major problems to fix.
New Wildcats’ coach Lester Ricard would like to create one, though.
Wait … a brand newly-named coach wants his program to have a problem?
To unlock that riddle requires an introduction to the mindset that the energetic and outgoing 33-year-old son of a preacher expects from and will demand from the players in his program to take on.
Ricard was named Walker’s coach last week after a short and intensive searched headed by Principal Jason St. Pierre, who accepted Brandon Lawley’s resignation on Jan. 12. Lawley guided the Wildcats to a 12-9 record in two seasons and the program’s first playoff berth last fall since 2001.
There were around 20 candidates for the position and Ricard was selected.
A former all-state quarterback at Amite High and Parade All-American, Ricard comes to Walker after two years as the offensive coordinator at perennial state power Hahnville. He was the head coach at St. Martin’s Episcopal in Metairie for a season before that.
“Starting right now, I want us to embrace a champion mentality,” Ricard said Monday as he made the rounds at the high school, shaking hands, meeting new co-workers, learning names and memorizing faces.
“That’s something I’m going to preach every day because I want our guys to know what we want them to reach for.
“A big part of my goal is to make Walker the West Monroe or Hahnville or Destrehan of this part of the state. I want people in our community and all around us to expect us to be better – that we’re going to raise the bar higher than it has ever been before. When we don’t get to the playoffs and win there and get to the state quarterfinals or semifinals, that’s the kind of problem I want us to have.”
Therein lies that ‘problem’ Ricard craves for the Wildcats.
And if that comes to fruition, you can bet that their new coach will follow the same process that got him to what he called the perfect job for him at the perfect time.
Roll back the clock to 2009 when it struck midnight on Ricard’s playing career. After two years clinging to hope in the NFL for a year each with Jacksonville and Carolina after a solid career at Tulane, Ricard went to the CFL and played a season with the Edmonton Eskimoes.
When reality set in and Ricard realized it was time to shift gears and enter the real-world work force, there were some abrupt jolts of reality.
For the next few years, Ricard was like most recent college graduates as he wrestled with finding the right fit in the world. Two jobs he worked at to make ends meet were with the Army Corps of Engineers helping construct a flood wall in New Orleans and as a juvenile counselor for Orleans Parish.
Eye-openers to be sure.
“I had some hills to climb,” Ricard said. “Those jobs taught me a lot about people and a lot about myself.”
They also cranked the flame in Ricard’s belly for football, coaching in particular, to high heat.
When a friend from De La Salle in the New Orleans area called about working with a young quarterback, Ricard jumped on the chance. That led to more lessons with more QBs, which led to a job offer from St. Martin’s, where Ricard spent the 2014 season and guided the Saints to a 5-5 record.
A change in the school’s athletic administration prompted Ricard to step away from that job and he landed on his feet nicely when Hahnville legend Nick Saltaformaggio offered him a spot with the Tigers.
Ricard fit well at the St. Charles Parish school and helped Hahnville to the state semifinals in 2015 before a loss to eventual champion Zachary, led by Lindsey Scott – a QB who Ricard tutored and is now at LSU. Last fall the Tigers reached the third round before falling to John Ehret 35-28.
“Coach Nick means the world to me,” Ricard said of Saltaformaggio. “He’s almost like a father figure or uncle to me these last two years. He gives me great advice. We butt heads sometimes because we’re from two different generations, but in the end we always agreed on figuring out how to win football games.”
As comfortable a fit a Ricard found in Hahnville, he knew there was something more waiting for him on the horizon, both personally and as a coach.
Ricard and wife Linda, a former Olympic swimmer from Trinidad and Tobago, brought Lester Ricard III into the world in November, so there was a natural need for more income.
Beyond that, though, Ricard approached the offseason with a two-pronged approach: He wanted to take a leap of faith if he found a program looking for a head coach and his desire to re-establish his role as a minister with his father’s Baton Rouge-based church also tugged at his heart strings.
Lester Ricard Sr. is the pastor at New Harvest Church in the Central area after spending several years in St. Helena Parish. The new Walker coach has always felt a strong pull to be at his parents’ side in their church, and getting closer to them to do so was important.
“I had been looking for head-coaching opportunities and a chance to move closer to home, but I wanted it to be the best fit for me and my family,” Ricard Jr. said. “From a ministerial standpoint, this is my chance to put my imprint on his ministry. There are so many things I know I can do in ministry and I haven’t been able to do it as well because there was some distance. I wanted to make sure it was right job to match up with that, and from the moment I walked onto campus and met with Mr. St. Pierre, I knew this was it. As soon as I left the first time, I prayed that the Lord would make this the right situation and He did.”
Right fit at a good time because as this story started, the Wildcats are a program on an upward arc.
Lawley, along with a revamped coaching staff anchored by assistants Gary Coates, Johnathan Mailhes and David Maryland, brought Walker back from the ashes the last two seasons.
Besides the playoff spot – the Cats’ first ever as a 5A program – they also ended a 25-game district losing streak and resoundingly ended a 10-year losing streak to Denham Springs High with a 70-17 romp.
Although Walker lost a large group of seniors who were instrumental to the program’s resurgence the last two seasons, there is a core group set to return, and more importantly, the program’s participation numbers have skyrocketed.
“We’ve got a good foundation in place, although you never really know what you have coming back until you get out there and start working,” Ricard said. “I definitely want to say that I appreciate the job Brandon did and I appreciate the foundation in place now and the level of excitement those kids coming back have.”
Those players who quenched one hunger but left plenty of room to improve are now on Ricard’s watch.
And the man who helped guide Amite to the 1999 Class 3A state crown as a sophomore QB is eager to start shaping the Walker program in his image.
“ I want our kids to believe in themselves and be proud of what they do every day to make Walker better and to make themselves better because that’s how I have always carried myself,” Ricard said. “We will challenge them every day and ask them ‘Are you a great brother, a great son, a great nephew, a great student?’ Those are the things we will expect from them daily and I want to be the example of how to carry themselves.”
The Ricard File
Family: Linda (Trinidad & Tobago), son Lester III (infant)
Parents: Lester Sr. and Jerry
Hometown: Denham Springs (St. Helena Parish)
High school: Amite High (2002)
College: Tulane (Class of 2006)
Playing career: Jacksonville Jaguars (2007), Carolina Panthers (2008), Edmonton Eskimoes (2009)
Coaching career: De La Salle High offensive coordinator (2013), St. Martin’s Episcopal head coach (2014), Hahnville offensive coordinator (2015-16)
Quote of note: “I’m a country boy and love coaching at a country school. It’s all about the community and getting them your program. These people in Walker want to win and so do I.”
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta | @LPN_Sports | @LPNews1898