PINEVILLE, La. - It wasn't easy. Maybe, it was never meant to be, at least not for this senior class.
In a season that saw them play the school's hardest schedule ever, the Louisiana College Wildcats survived a fourth quarter Hardin-Simmons comeback to win their season finale, 42-35, and end the season with a four-game win streak.
For the fourth time in five years, the Wildcats finished as the American Southwest Conference runners-up after ending the season with a 4-1 conference record, 6-4 overall.
"This was the most fitting ending I could think of," said senior linebacker Grayson Pylant. "I don't think we won by more than a touchdown pretty much all year, and it all coming down to the defense was a pretty big deal because that's where most of our seniors are."
In holding off the Cowboys, who fell to 3-2 in conference play and 6-3 overall, the Wildcats nearly saw a three touchdown lead disappear in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys, who were shut out in the third, finally broke through early in the fourth quarter. On a fourth and one, running back Kerry Sloan broke off a 55-yard touchdown run to cut the LC lead to 14.
The Wildcats seemed to seal the win again, when at the 6:50 mark, sophomore C.J. Hawkins blocked HSU's Nico Francino's punt and LC's Shaq Lewis returned the ball 10 yards for a touchdown to make it 42-28, LC.
The Cowboys, who were fighting for the chance to go to the NCAA Division III playoffs with a win, weren't finished, however. On successive possessions, Weston Garner connected with receiver Trei Lewis for touchdown pass plays of 65 and 68 yards to cut the Wildcats' lead to 42-35 with 3:29 to play.
LC's offense had the chance to run out the clock, but could only run four plays on its ensuring possession before having to punt the ball back with 1:30 left in the game. Garner, who finished 27 of 43 for 397 yards and four touchdowns, moved his team out to its own 45.
But, the Wildcats got a sack from senior Darion Clark and then successive knocked-down pass defenses by senior linebackers Beau Brewer and Grayson Pylant to secure the win. Brewer finished the game with 21 tackles and Pylant with 10.
"We knew they had to pass the ball with just a couple of seconds left," Brewer said. "We deepened up a little bit and just let everything play out in front of us and tried to make a play."
The Wildcats got the win despite being out-gained by Hardin-Simmons. The Cowboys had 549 total yards to just 402 for LC. HSU also dominated time of possession, 35:01 to 24:32.
Melancon capped this strong sophomore season by going 16 of 25 for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored LC's first touchdown of the game on a trick play. It game at the 7:59 mark of the first quarter when receiver Farron Jones took a handoff and passed the ball back to Melancon, who broke a tackle and ran 17 yards for the score to make it 7-0, LC.
"We've been working on that play all season," Melancon said. "I kept trying to tell Coach (Dennis) Dunn that whenever he calls it, I'll make sure I get into the end zone. It did, so maybe we'll start calling more plays like that."
The Cowboys responded with two straight scores. The first, a 9-yard touchdown catch by Lewis, who finished with six catches, 169 yards and three scores. The other was Garner's 29-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Simpson to make it 14-7, HSU, with 11:14 to play in the first half.
LC scored the final two touchdowns of the first half, however. Sophomore running back Austin Carlin scored the first on a two-yard run, the other was scored by Gardner on a 16-yard pass from Melancon to make it 21-14, LC at the half.
LC dominated the third quarter, holding the Cowboys scoreless, while getting a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore Aurren Cooksey and Gardner's 51-yard catch. Cooksey's 79 yards rushing on 18 carries led the Wildcats, as freshman Devin Sylve, who injured his hand in last week's game at Sul Ross, got just two carries in this game. Gardner led LC with 6 catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns, while sophomore Shedrick Davis had 110 yards on five catches.
The Wildcats said good-bye to 17 seniors in their annual Senior Day game. Among them, record-setting placekicker Adan Olivares, who added six extra points to his career scoring record that finished at 264. Lewis set a new LC career interception record in the game with his 14th career pick in the first quarter. Defensive back Ira Jewitt also established a new school record with 234 interception return yards, tied the LC record held by Justin Charles for return touchdowns with eight and tied the ASC record for most return touchdowns in a single season with four.
"Both sides of the ball played great today," Melancon said. "And it was great to get a win for these seniors."
"It's coming in bits and pieces," Pylant said of playing in his final game. "About the third quarter, I realized this would be my last two quarters of football ever. I think we all realized it at the same time, and it really inspired us."