THIBODAUX – A 38-31 home loss to South Dakota in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday may have brought Nicholls’ season to an end but it was a season of first for the Colonels in many ways.
“You never prepare for it to end. You don’t want to think you will go in the locker room and look those 16 seniors in the eye for the last time. It’s really tough. But I’m sure in the next couple of days when we reflect back on all the good things that we did and the foundation that we have – and I know the group we have coming back and we will add to it with a good recruiting class – we don’t want to make this a one-time thing. We want to get ourselves to be in position to be in the playoffs and battle for a conference championship. I think we have a foundation to do that,” Nicholls coach Tim Rebowe said.
Those 16 seniors posted a 13-10 mark and a playoff appearance over their last two seasons – a vast turnaround for a group that endured a 0-12 season as freshmen.
“We had a group of seniors that believed in what we are doing and the underclassmen too, so the future in bright,” said Rebowe.
The future is indeed bright for a team that started two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen on offense, along with three juniors, two sophomores and one freshman on Saturday, with most of the key reserves being underclassmen.
A season of firsts for Nicholls in 2017 included a single-season best seven wins in Southland Conference play and a first-ever home playoff game.
Both accomplishments are the result of a plan implemented by Rebowe when he arrived three years ago. A one-time Destrehan High coach, Rebowe and he staff made a concerted effort to concentrate recruiting in the fertile football-playing grounds between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
A number of those players have come from Rebowe’s own native River Parishes. The River Parish players brought with them a winning tradition. They also brought along family and friends as part of Rebowe’s “build it and they will come” mentality.
Game-by-game, the Colonels got better, shed the loser tag, and more and more people showed up for the contests – enough so that Nicholls was able to host a playoff game.
For all the “firsts” Nicholls has achieved in 2017 the biggest may be what occurred with slightly more than seven minutes left in the game against South Dakota.
A 43-yard Lorran Fonseca field goal had just tied the game 31-31 moments earlier. The Coyotes faced third-and-13 and an illegal shift penalty backed South Dakota to the Nicholls 45. The crowd noise was so loud, South Dakota quarterback Chris Streveler was unable to make his call heard and the officials stopped the game to allow the Coyotes to reset.
“I thought they were vocal and loud,” Rebowe said of the crowd. “One time it caused them on the snap to screw it up a little bit and the referee – I kind of argued it a little bit – he said he hadn’t set the ball in play. I thought it was a big factor for us that they got behind us pretty well.”
Even visiting coach Bob Nielson took note of the crowd.
“This was a great crowd that I think really helped them,” the South Dakota coach mentioned during the postgame press conference.
A pass interference call against Nicholls on third-and-18 gave South Dakota a first down and the Coyotes went on to score what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on the drive.
Still, the moment represented one of the most noteworthy “firsts” for Nicholls – a game being stopped because of crowd nose. Only a few years earlier, the chirping of crickets used to pass as crowd noise at Guidry Stadium.
As always, River Parish players had a key role in keeping the Colonels in the game and hyping up the crowd.
Trailing 14-0 late in the first half, defensive back Austin Dickerson out of Destrehan returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter. Although the Colonels allowed a 39-yard Ryan Weese field goal on the final play of the first half, Dickerson’s interception got Nicholls on the scoreboard to trail 17-7 at the break.
“Austin’s pick was huge momentum to make it 14-7. We talked about coming out, taking the second half drive and going down in score. We didn’t score on that but we said we would be alright if we didn’t; we would come back the next time and we did it and then it was a ball game back and forth from there,” said Rebowe.
Dickerson is part of a River Parish contingent on the Nicholls defense that has come up big all season long, joining the likes of Sully Laiche, Evan Veron, Allen Pittman, Hezekiah White, Aquindas Steib and Ahmani Martin.
Even a River Parish native on the offensive side has come through late in the season. Tahj Smith of St. Charles Catholic, rushed for two touchdowns against South Dakota. Two weeks earlier against Stephen F. Austin, the redshirt freshman seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 177 yards.
With all of the aforementioned River Parish players returning and with others waiting in the wings, the Colonels seem to be building something that could be enduring.
“It starts with the players,” Laiche. “The attitude around campus, the attitude in the locker room, everybody being positive – it brings positive vibes to the whole football team and the community itself. How you act in the community, just everybody coming in as a whole, it really is special.”