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St. Amant's Cade Nelson (22) is tackled by Lutcher's Rashaun Preston (4), Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, at Lutcher High School in Lutcher, La.

St. Amant was in the early stages of a memorable 2016 season when it traveled to eventual Class 3A champion Lutcher without its starting running back.

There were whispers in the still-flood-ravaged Ascension Parish community as to the Gators’ hopes, going into a game against such a formidable opponent.

Could the team complement its explosive passing game? Who would be the source of the team’s ground game?

Cade Nelson took the skepticism to heart. He responded with an inspired 35-carry, 240-yard and three-touchdown effort, including the game-winning score with 47.2 seconds to go in a 36-34 road victory.

“People talked and you heard, ‘What are we going to do without the starter?’ ” Nelson said. “That got under my skin. I felt like no one believed in me as much as I believed in myself. I didn’t want to let any of my teammates down. I wanted to prove that I could impact a game as much as anyone else.”

Not even Nelson, who also caught three passes for 19 yards in the win, could have envisioned such a memorable outing.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that,” said Nelson, whose second-half TDs of 20 and 8 yards gave St. Amant the lead both times.

Nelson’s career-best game was not only a springboard in St. Amant’s 7-0 start and eventual 11-2 finish, the Gators also found a dependable runner who went on to earn All-District 5-5A and All-Metro honors. He rushed 183 times for 1,194 yards and 13 touchdowns.

A week before his breakout game, Nelson, who saw time at safety and special teams, had 55 yards on 13 carries in a rotational role in the backfield.

“I started doubting myself, feeling I wasn’t good enough,” Nelson said. “I had worked so hard and wasn’t getting there. Then we had an injury, and the coaches told me it was going to be my game.”

St. Amant coach David Oliver said Nelson was simply making good on an opportunity.

“We believe in our kids and knew what he had,” Oliver said. “We were surprised, but not that surprised.”

A year later, without offensive leaders in quarterback Hayden Mallory and wide receiver Briggs Bourgeois, there’s a new centerpiece to St. Amant’s offense and Nelson is eager to deliver in his final season.

Start with the additional 15 pounds to his 5-foot-9 frame. Nelson, now at 180 pounds, says he’s also faster because of his offseason work, and he believes he’s better equipped to handle an increased work load.

During St. Amant’s postseason run, Nelson suffered an ankle sprain and dislocated elbow in the Gators’ regional win over Barbe, limiting him to one quarter of play in a 45-31 quarterfinal loss at West Monroe.

“We’ve discussed as a team we’re going to run a lot more,” Nelson said. “I know they’re looking to me to set that tone.”

Teammates have noticed Nelson’s example, having voted him captain. Along with his on-field production, Nelson also ranks among the top 10 in his class with a weighted 4.64 GPA. He hasn’t gotten a "B" since the sixth grade.

“I don’t want to get a B,” Nelson said. “I don’t like hearing someone did better than me. In football, I work hard because I don’t like anyone being able to say they work harder than me. I’m very competitive.”