McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2013 10:05 PM
They entered this season with the potential of becoming the senior class who didn’t.
In a program where tradition is trumped over all, the McNeese State class of 2013 had a 12-game test to avoid becoming the first such group since 1990 to end their careers without a postseason appearance.
It’s amazing how much one season can change a legacy.
After a 10-2 regular season that included a record-breaking win against a Bowl Subdivision opponent earned the Cowboys a No. 6 seed and a first-round bye, the class of 2013 will now be remembered as the group that brought McNeese back onto a pedestal.
“We’ve had a few down years in McNeese standards. Our seniors know that,” said quarterback Cody Stroud. “We took it upon ourselves early in this year to kind of make a statement to the guys around the nation that we’re back and trying to get where we need to be. The seniors have done a great job leading this team, and we’re not finished yet.”
The concept of “McNeese standards” is important to understanding the mindset of this group. They’ve never experienced a losing season. But until this season, they had not played up the the expectations they placed on themselves.
“We took it amongst ourselves to not get down on ourselves after a couple of down years by McNeese standards,” said safety Terence Cahee. “To get focused and get back on the same page. I think we did a great job to get where we needed to be.”
No year hurt as much as the last.
The potential for something big was there at the beginning, but the loss of standout safety Malcolm Bronson early in the year was a huge blow to overcome. The Cowboys very nearly did, but a pair of late-game, 1-point losses to Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana kept McNeese out of the playoffs.
From that pain came a hunger.
“I think (the seniors) last year and the years before have had that bond, but having the ups and downs we’ve been through, it was big for us to come together,” said running back Marcus Wiltz. “We have meetings as seniors and talk about how we can better ourselves and come out and be leaders for this team and lead (us) on to bigger and better things.”
Those off-the-field intangibles are a huge plus, but it’s also possible to have a bad team with a good locker room. The Cowboy senior class is also leading in the area where football success is ultimately measured — the scoreboard.
On offense, their names are littered all over the Southland all-conference team after only one Cowboy player was named to the first team a year ago.
Stroud is the league’s offensive player of the year. Arinze Agada is the offensive lineman of the year. Wiltz is the conference’s leading rusher, surpassing Payton Award candidate Timothy Flanders. Wide receiver Diontae Spencer has the third-most touchdown receptions in the conference with nine.
The defense has been guided by all-conference cornerback Guy Morgan, who was second in the league with four interceptions, including a 76-yard pick-6 that broke South Florida’s back in a tone-setting 53-21 Week 1 win.
Other seniors like Cahee and recevier Ernest Celestie may not have received the first-team accolades, but have proven as vitally important to getting McNeese back to the upper-echelon of the FCS.
“When you’ve been around McNeese so long and seen how great teams have been, and to be part of a team that could leave a legacy that could be the greatest of all-time means a lot personally,” said Celestie, who grew up in Lake Charles emulating the exploits of Cowboy great B.J. Sams. “It really comes from the heart. It’s more like an honor.”
There is still a potential four-game window for that legacy to continue growing.
“I’m just glad I’m part of something special right now,” Spencer said. “Hopefully the road to Frisco can only make it more special.”
Even if that road falls well short of the title game in Frisco, Texas, the Class of 2013 has assured itself a legacy that will go beyond this season.
“This is a special team. Even though we have a great group of seniors, we have a great group of underclassmen that’s going to carry this on when we leave,” Wiltz said. “They’re doing a tremendous job of going along with the plans that we have, following our leadership and buying into this program.”