HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana may have been the school closest to his Mandeville home that was recruiting him but senior linebacker Justin Church said proximity wasn’t the overriding factor in his decision.
It was more of a premonition; a hunch that convinced Church to join the Lions program on the heels of tumultuous times for the program brought on by NCAA sanctions.
“I saw a lot of potential and growth and everything was developing at Southeastern,” Church said. “It looked like there was a lot of upside to it. That was something I wanted to be a part of. I felt God put it in my heart to come here and seeing all the success here I know I’m in the right spot.”
Those past struggles, filled with lackluster support and sparse home attendance, have been replaced by sky-high expectations, a community love affair with its nationally ranked program and a home field – Strawberry Stadium – revered as one of the Southland Conference’s best home field advantages.
Thanks to the contributions of its senior class – a 23-member group that will be recognized beforehand – No. 10 SLU (7-3, 5-1) hosts No. 11 McNeese State (6-3, 4-2) in a key Southland Conference matchup at 3 p.m. Saturday.
SLU finds itself in a tie for the league lead with Sam Houston State and has two games remaining in order to garner a share of a second straight conference title.
“It’s going to be really emotional,” SLU senior wide receiver Chris Malott said. “We’ve come from the bottom of the conference. It was a big deal to go 5-6 (2012) and win the conference last year. Now we’re competing again for the championship. It’s a big change.
“The whole atmosphere has changed here since my first two years,” Malott said. “Nobody was in the stands or would come to support us. Now everybody wants to see Southeastern. Everybody enjoys the atmosphere and has fun.”
Church and Malott, along with tight end Jeremy Meyers of St. Michael the Archangel and defensive lineman Steven Korte, are the lone fifth-year seniors on the team when the program endured a 2-9 record their first seasons
A 3-8 mark ensued the following year and with it a coaching change, bringing Ron Roberts and a brand-new staff to change the program’s fortunes which resulted in a 5-6 record, including two straight wins to close the 2012 campaign.
“That was the year I realized we had a team that could make it somewhere,” said SLU senior cornerback Marice Sutton, who has 34 tackles.
Roberts’ arrival not only brought about philosophical changes but also a purge of the roster where eight of the current seniors are junior college transfers and three others are either FBS or Division II transfers, including standout quarterback Bryan Bennett.
The composition of the roster didn’t matter, only the single-minded purpose of the program that wanted to pursue excellence and achieve championships.
SLU struck gold last season with the school’s first 11-win season, going undefeated to win the inaugural SLC championship and advance to the FCS quarterfinals.
“We’re all really close,” said Malott, who has 10 catches for 280 yards and 3 TDs. “These are my brothers. If you ever see us out you’ll see a couple of always together. Everybody’s close knit. When everyone’s working toward one goal that naturally draws you close.”
Some of the seniors choose not to dwell on Saturday as their home finale, instead holding out for another home game in the postseason that would come with another conference title.
Until then they’ll continue working diligently toward that goal, needing wins over McNeese and Nicholls State to do so, and enjoying the camaraderie that’s firmly cemented the bond this year’s senior class.
“I’ve been holding it in for a while when you see how much this team has progressed over the years,” Sutton admitted. “We won the conference last year and have a possibility of winning it again. It hurts knowing you’re about to depart from some family members you created on this team.”