Out of Southland race, Southeastern Louisiana takes on Incarnate Word _lowres

Photo provided by Randy Bergeron/SLU Public Information Southeastern Louisiana defensive back Jordan Batiste returns an interception against Southern Utah last season.

HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana senior defensive back Jordan Batiste doesn’t mind admitting to being taken aback by the course of this season.

With eight starters returning both offense and defense that earned all-league recognition, Batiste had visions of the Lions winning a third straight Southland Conference championship and advancing to postseason play.

“I was very surprised this year,” Batiste said. “I thought it was going to be a three-peat year, but that’s not how it happened. That’s life.”

Inconsistency and injuries combined to alter Southeastern’s path from the league’s high-rent district to a middle-of-the-pack team looking for positives in trying to play out the string.

Batiste said that while motivation over the team’s remaining three games may not be noticeable to those outside the program, the mission is clear to the players within the Lions’ close-knit circle.

“We’re still playing for each other,” said Batiste, the team’s leading tackler with 51. “We still love playing together and we still want to win. We’re not going lay down for anybody. We’re winners and we’re going to play like it.”

Southeastern (4-4, 3-3) begins its final stretch of games, including its next-to-last home game, with a Southland Conference contest at 6 p.m. Saturday against Incarnate Word (4-4, 3-3) at Strawberry Stadium.

“Right now, we’ve got a blank slate and trying to go 3-0,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said. “That will be huge going into the offseason, recruiting and spring practice. We have to live with whatever we do in the next three games for the next seven to eight months.”

Senior linebacker Hebert Harris also sees the feasibility of a strong finish serving as a springboard toward next season.

“We want to finish these games strong and give next year’s returning team something to work toward next year,” Harris said. “We want to make sure these guys know what the standard is and what it should be.”

SLU appeared equipped with enough experienced personnel to make a run at a third-straight Southland Conference title. The Lions began the season ranked in the Top 25 and were selected to finish either second or third in this year’s league race.

SLU opened with a 34-20 win over Northwestern State on the road and were 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the league following a 30-27 home win over Lamar in which the Lions scored a touchdown on their final possession of the game.

The Lions have since gone 1-3, falling 21-7 at front-running McNeese State and dropping a heart-breaking 28-27 decision to Stephen F. Austin, which scored the game-winning points on its final series.

“It is kind of disappointing,” Harris said. “It’s the game of football, and you win some and lose some. Every year, you have thousands of players that put their all into something and shoot for one goal. Sometimes you make it and sometimes you miss. This time we came up short.”

Injuries took their toll, especially on offense, when SLU lost its top two playmakers for the season — wide receiver Jeff Smiley and wide receiver/kick returner Xavier Roberson — in consecutive weeks.

The Lions haven’t played with their starting offensive tackles — Pierson Villarubia and Aaron Reed — in three weeks, while the defense, which lost senior linebacker T.J. West after the Northwestern game, hasn’t played with the same starting 11 since the season opener.

“The year didn’t go how we wanted,” Batiste said. “Life goes on, and we’ll have a good season next year and Southeastern will be back on top.”