Bugs Beat: Shreveport tops in NAHL attendance

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Shreveport, even from within, has taken its fair share of criticism about its ability to be a “sports town.” The area has seen multiple levels of professional baseball and football franchises either fold or leave town and soccer has failed. Pro hoops was run out of town — and since returned — despite winning championships, and the cost of professional hockey caused that sport to go dark for a few years.

Fan support hasn’t been an issue for the Shreveport Mudbugs, even in the days before their break following a 2011 Central Hockey League Presidents Cup championship.

The franchise – and its rabid fans – picked up where it left off after joining the North American Hockey League in 2016.

Saturday, 3,189 fans watched the Mudbugs cap the 2021-22 regular season on George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum with a 5-0 victory. Shreveport finished the season with an average attendance of 2,275 and led the NAHL for the fourth-straight season.

Pack the Pond

Season, average attendance (NAHL rank)

2021-22, 2,275 (Leader)

2020-21, 1,580 (Leader)

2019-20, 2,575 (Leader)

2018-19, 2,830 (Leader)

2017-18, 2,925 (2nd)

2016-17, 2,850 (2nd)

Shreveport kept its perfect NAHL postseason participation alive. For the fifth time (the 2020 playoffs were cancelled due to COVID), the Mudbugs are an NAHL playoff team. The team will travel to Texas to face rival Lone Star on Friday to begin a best-of-5 first-round series.

But first, we will highlight a wild 2021-22 campaign with some notable statistics.

Brimmer hits trifecta

Austin Brimmer became the only Mudbug to reach the 20-goal plateau this season with a remarkable tally in the first period in Saturday’s regular-season finale. Brimmer is the first NAHL Mudbug to lead his team outright in goals, assists (34) and points (54).

“It means the world because Shreveport is such a historic organization,” Brimmer told The Journal. “There are guys who played and are still involved, like (head coach Jason Campbell) Soupy and (general manager Scott Muscutt) Musky — it’s truly a pleasure to have that record. This organization has been so good to me. I’m so thankful for the opportunity.”

During Shreveport’s professional era, only three players cashed an identical trifecta — Toby Burkitt (30 goals, 50 assists, 1999-2000), Dan Wildfong (32G, 37A, 2004-05) and Joe Blaznek (24G, 39A, 2008-09).

Bobak bullies way to wins record

Shreveport netminder Devon Bobak shattered the NAHL franchise record for victories in a season between the pipes. Bobak’s 27 wins easily beat the prior mark set by Cole Hudson (20, 2020-21). Bobak also entered a three-way tie for the most shutouts in a single season.

Bobak, Maiszon Balboa (2019-20) and James Durham (2017-18) all earned five shutouts in their respective campaigns.

“Koko” proves he’s a (game-) winner

Shreveport forward Timofei Khokhlachev finished his regular-season Mudbugs career with an NAHL-franchise best nine game-winning goals. The Russian missed last season (he was stuck in his homeland) but still tops the list. He’s one ahead of current teammate Connor Gatto and former teammate Gueorgui Feduolov.

Journal’s 3 Stars

  1. Simon Bucheler, made 26 saves to collect his second shutout of the season Saturday
  2. Austin Brimmer, reached 20-goal mark on the season Saturday
  3. Connor Gatto, goal and an assist in Saturday’s victory 

NAHL South Division, final standings

xy-Lone Star (38-12-10), 86 points

*New Mexico (38-17-5), 81

*Wichita Falls (35-17-8), 78

*Shreveport (34-21-5), 73

Odessa (29-26-5), 63

Amarillo (27-29-4), 58

Corpus Christi (25-32-3), 53

El Paso (15-41-4), 34

x-clinched division

y-clinched overall NAHL regular-season title

*in playoffs

Final 2021-22 Mudbugs leaders

Goals: Austin Brimmer, 20

Assists: Brimmer, 34

Points: Brimmer, 54

Penalty Minutes: Davis Goukler, 133

Plus-minus: Lukas Sedlacek, plus-20 

Game-winning goals: Connor Gatto, Sedlacek, Gunner Moore, 4

Goals-against average: Devon Bobak, 2.09

Save percentage: Bobak, .921

Up next

Shreveport begins a best-of-5 first-round playoff series with Lone Star in North Richland Hills, Texas on Friday and Saturday.

Photo courtesy Shreveport Mudbugs




Not time for Tiger to walk (limp) away

For more than a decade, Tiger Woods seemed invincible. For a couple of decades, the presence of Woods on a leaderboard made most of his fellow competitors wilt. This week, they were in awe at the fact he could simply tee it up at Augusta National Golf Club.

My, how things have changed.

There was a time when a broken leg and a torn ACL didn’t stop Woods — not just from playing, but winning.

In 2008, Woods limped his way to an incredible victory at the U.S. Open. After a spectacular birdie on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines, Woods was forced to play another 18 holes on two stress fractures and a torn ACL, but he still managed to top Rocco Mediate.

The 2022 Masters was a different story.

Thursday, Woods made his first start since a serious car accident nearly 14 months ago. With a first-round 71, he found a spot in the top 10 and set the stage for what would have been the greatest sports story in many of our lifetimes.

But, Woods isn’t invincible anymore. The effects of the litany of injuries in his right leg were just too much to overcome.

Rust began to surface during Friday’s 74. On Saturday, it was obvious his leg wasn’t ready for 72 holes around the extremely undulating Augusta National Golf Club. Sunday was sad and hard to watch. Not Woods’ second straight 78, but how he barely managed to walk up the 18th hole.

The way he shifted his hips to collect enough momentum to get up the final fairway, the gimp … it all made what he accomplished over the first 54 holes even more amazing.

However, one thing remains clear: it doesn’t matter if it’s bulletproof Tiger or vulnerable Tiger, he still moves the needle more than any other current athlete.

Just ask Bubba Watson. Following his final round Sunday, the two-time winner of the Green Jacket was asked about his favorite memory of the event – 10 years removed from his last victory there.

“Truthfully, it’s the inspiration of Tiger. Tiger — forget score. I don’t care,” Watson said. “He might not say that to the media, but forget score, right? It’s pretty inspirational.”

Amazingly, Woods did tell the media, something impossible during his prime.

Woods’ career has been defined by victories. Real victories, as in sitting at the top of the leaderboard. For a champion of 93 PGA Tour events, moral victories didn’t exist. A 47th-place effort at Augusta wouldn’t solicit any emotion but anger.

However, perhaps as shocking as his opening-round performance was an answer he gave in the subsequent news conference.

“Was this the equivalent of a victory to you, just showing up and being able to compete like you did?” Woods was asked.

His simple response: “Yes.”

I loved merciless Tiger, but this softer side ain’t bad, either.

In a career that’s unfortunately featured many long layoffs, Woods’ answer proves this comeback has been the most challenging.

A year-plus of PGA Tour inactivity and his often-battered 46-year-old body may have as much to do with Woods’ fragility at The Masters than the injuries sustained in the car accident. And that’s not a bad thing. It means there’s hope we can see Tiger parlay the vulnerability and the ferociousness again someday – something even greater than the 2019 Masters.

World No. 2 Jon Rahm was paired with Woods on Sunday, but Rahm considered himself just another member of the huge gallery following the 15-time major champion.

“If he can walk and get strength up and stamina in that sense, he will be able to be competitive again,” Rahm said. “This is the hardest walk all year. He will be able to go somewhere where it’s a little easier to walk. It won’t be as long, and I believe he’ll be able to contend.”

I’ll take it. It’s clear I’m not the only one who is just not ready for Tiger to ride off into the sunset.




Sam Burns’ Masters debut a predictable struggle

NOT PICTURE PERFECT: Sam Burns’ tee shot on the iconic 16th hole at Augusta National found a sand trap Thursday and led to his final bogey in the Shreveport native’s first competitive round at the Masters.

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

More than any other tournament in professional golf, outside of a few examples, experience is a prerequisite for success at The Masters. That’s just the way it usually is.

A look at the names on the leaderboard following Thursday’s first round at Augusta National Golf Club prove this once again.

Leader Sungae Im (5 under) finished tied for second in 2020 with Cameron Smith, who sits one stroke behind Im after Thursday. A trio of former champions (Danny Willett and Dustin Johnson, third; Tiger Woods, 10th) reside in the Top 10 after 18 holes.

Shreveport native Sam Burns, one of the hottest players on the planet in the past 10 months, entered Thursday without a competitive round in The Masters. His struggle shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The former Calvary Baptist Academy and LSU star was 1-under through three holes in his competitive debut at Augusta National, but a bogey on No. 4 and a double bogey on No. 5 derailed his afternoon en route to a 3-over 75.

Burns’ home course, Squire Creek Country Club, in Choudrant has similar characteristics as Augusta — wide fairways, significant elevation changes, sidehill lies all over, and extremely undulating greens, but there’s just no substitute for the real thing.

Hey, Woods’ first trips around the historic venue didn’t exactly paint a picture of what was to come. Woods didn’t break par in any round during his 1995 debut. He missed the cut in 1996 and shot 40 on his opening nine holes in 1997. Of course, he then torched Augusta to the tune of 24-under over his final 63 holes in a mind-boggling rout.

As a teenager, Burns saw Augusta during a practice round, but didn’t get to play until a trip with his father, Todd, a month ago.

“It was really special for us,” Burns, who has won three times on the PGA Tour in the past year, said. “We were both blown away by just the property in general. It was definitely a moment for me that I’ll never forget, getting to walk around with my dad for the first time and getting to play.”

Whether it was Tiger’s chip-in on No. 16 in 2005 or Bubba Watson’s 2012 miracle from the trees on No. 10, Burns’ spent his first trips around Augusta reliving those moments and seeing exactly where they were created.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that was really impressive.’ When you see it up close and personal, it kind of changes your perspective on things,” Burns said Tuesday.

Thursday offered him the first opportunity to create such a moment. He birdied three of the par-5s (Nos. 2, 8 and 13), but will look again for a game-changing moment in today’s second round.

“This week it’s about trying to learn the golf course as much as I can,” Burns said. “There’s a lot of nuances to this place, and for me it’s trying to gain information from guys who have been here a bunch, or guys that have played well in the past here — so just trying to take all of that in and kind of process it.”

Today, Burns will get his second shot at the beloved venue as his grouping with Abraham Ancer and Tyrrell Hatton tees off at 9:01 a.m. (CDT).

Courtesy KTBS




Adversity? Eye injury just an inconvenience for Haughton’s Walker

Brogan Walker attends Haughton High School. Like a true Buccaneer, he’s been known to wear an eye patch with a skull and swords.

On the pitcher’s mound.

He is no mascot, or a side show, but rather an inspirational story worthy of Hollywood.

A year and a couple of weeks ago, Walker was tossing batting practice at a local training facility when he was faced with the comebacker of all comebackers. The ball squared up his right eye and the aftermath included a loss of vision and multiple surgeries on the eye.

One month ago, Walker was legally blind in the eye with 20/400 vision. That didn’t quell the sophomore’s desire to play varsity baseball. Armed with the bravado of a (healthy) veteran and the ability to throw strikes with three different pitches, Walker bullied his way onto the varsity squad nearly one year to the day after the accident.

All Walker did in his first varsity appearance was earn Haughton head coach Glenn Maynor’s 600th career win without throwing a pitch. The next night, Walker earned a save. Thursday, he allowed one unearned run in four innings against Airline and collected another victory.

A 2-0 record with a save seemed unimaginable a year ago.

“I was told by a bunch of doctors my baseball career was over,” Walker explained to The Journal. “I just never stopped. It feels amazing to be where I’m at right now.”

After the accident, Maynor simply hoped he could get Walker back for his junior and senior campaigns. Now, he’s penciled the 16-year-old in as the starter against Captain Shreve Tuesday.

“These aren’t low-leverage situations I’m putting him into,” Maynor said. “He’s not scared. He just goes out there and pitches.”

Walker’s quick jump from sub-varsity to the big squad made his parents, Ryan and Samantha, a bit uneasy.

“They were really scared something might happen again, especially on varsity because there are good hitters on every team,” Brogan Walker said.

Depth perception was an obvious road block after the injury, but Walker says it’s “starting to normalize” thanks to the time he spent working to get back on the diamond.

In a strange twist, the injury has bolstered Walker’s courage on the bump.

“When I started playing summer ball, I realized I was still doing great even though I couldn’t see,” Walker said. “I saw I could still be good at the game and knew as the vision improves, I will only gain confidence.”

His first dose of varsity baseball was incredible.

Walker entered what would be Maynor’s milestone 600th victory with Haughton trailing. Before he delivered a pitch, he executed a pick-off play for the final out of the inning. The Buccaneers then rallied for a walk-off win.

“I don’t even know how to explain what I felt. It was funny,” Walker said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stat line like that. It was great.”

Move over, Moonlight Graham.

Walker says his vision is now around 20/80, but the future is uncertain.

“They don’t know how far it can heal,” he said. “There is no telling from here.”

Although he admits it might intimidate the opposition, Walker has ditched the eye patch on the mound.

“My parents were worried about my safety, and I’m still trying to strengthen my vision,” Walker said.

 

As you would expect with a locker room full of teenage boys, the jokes have been flying around since Walker began his comeback. It’s all in good fun, and Walker has no problem making fun of himself.

“I got the nickname Patchy,” Walker said. “But my teammates do express how proud they are, too.”

 




Lacrosse offers blueprint for prep hockey’s local growth

This evening, 29 locals will hit the ice at George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum with the hopes of earning a spot on the roster for Shreveport’s 2022-23 junior varsity hockey team.

Yes, local high school hockey not only exists, but it’s growing.

Shreveport’s varsity squad just completed its third season. The 2022-23 campaign will be the sophomore season for the JV unit.

“The amount of local kids who want to be hockey players is phenomenal,” Scott Muscutt, general manager of the Shreveport Mudbugs, a member of the North American Hockey League (the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior league in the nation), said. “The list of people responsible for that is endless. It’s truly remarkable.”

Shreveport’s high school hockey program, also dubbed the Mudbugs, is the only prep team in the area and includes players from several area schools. The team travels to Dallas every other week to play doubleheaders in the AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League.

The growth of this non-traditional sport is impressive, and it’s something Michael Pabst knows all about.

Hockey was first introduced to the area in 1997 with the Shreveport Mudbugs of the Western Professional Hockey League. Around that time, the idea to make lacrosse a local high school sport was born.

Like the problem “youth” hockey faces now, one team was developed back then for those interested in high school lacrosse in the area. And they had to travel to Texas to find games.

“It was all Karl Mitchell,” Pabst said.

Mitchell, an Air Force transplant and former college lacrosse player, started a pickup league by holding practices at Shreveport’s A.C. Steere Park. Eventually, youngsters took notice and asked Mitchell if he’d coach them should they get enough kids for a high school squad.

A church team (St. Paul’s) turned into a team at Loyola College Prep. In the early 2000s, Caddo Magnet had enough players to form its own team, and so did Byrd.

Mitchell, the godfather of Louisiana lacrosse, coached until his untimely death at the age of 48 in 2013. Pabst served as an assistant under Mitchell before taking the Yellow Jackets’ job.

“I hadn’t held a stick in 20 years, but I knew how to yell at teenagers,” said Pabst, a product of Massachusetts who helped organize local youth lacrosse and eventually founded the sport’s premier youth organization in the area, Red River Lacrosse.

Pabst now coaches the Renegades, the home for high school lacrosse athletes who do not attend a school with its own team. The Renegades and other area prep teams are members of the Louisiana High School Lacrosse League. They are no longer forced to travel to Texas to find games.

Pabst says the key for the growth of lacrosse was the recruitment of middle schoolers, something the Mudbugs have done in the past.

Hockey’s growth in the area has endured speedbumps. In fact, it almost never began. With the arrival of professional hockey in the late ’90s, there was an idea to get kids involved in the sport, but there were tempered expectations and naysayers.

“We didn’t even have enough confidence in our ability to put kids on the ice,” said Muscutt, the first player ever signed to play professional hockey in Shreveport. “People said, ‘Roller hockey is as good as it’s going to get.’ We questioned that and said, ‘Why is that as good as it’s going to get?’”

The Junior Mudbugs program eventually hit the ice at the CenturyTel Center (now the Brookshire Grocery Arena) in Bossier City. Today, there are hundreds of members of the Junior Mudbugs.

One Junior Mudbugs graduate, Brayden Cook, has made his way to the NAHL’s Springfield Junior Blues.

Jason Campbell, a former Mudbugs player and assistant coach, now coaches the Mudbugs NAHL squad. He was instrumental in getting high school hockey rolling.

“It does George Cloutier proud,” Campbell said.

Cloutier was a local goaltender whose life ended at age 12. His name graces the playing surface at the Hirsch Coliseum – the only sheet of ice in the area.

“His family and their love for the game had a supreme effect on Musky and myself and our community,” Campbell said.

Even at a young age, Cloutier believed hockey could bring a portion of the community together. He was right.

“I never would have projected the success high school hockey has brought, but it’s been phenomenal,” Muscutt said. “And now these kids are going on to play college hockey. That would never happen without high school hockey.”

While hockey faces limitations that don’t exist in lacrosse — one being limited playing surfaces — one thing local high school hockey can offer is the ability to wear the Mudbugs logo.

Today, those kids will compete for a shot to wear the same logo as the Mudbugs they watch at The George on weekends. The same colors as the players who’ve won two national championships in the past four years.

“I’m glad it opens up their heart and makes me even happier when I see it opens up their eyes and they realize there is a responsibility when you wear the logo,” Muscutt said. “‘What is my sportsmanship like? How to I treat my teammates. How do I walk into the rink? What clothes am I wearing? How do I walk out of the rink? How do I speak to officials?’

“I hope it comes with the culture that it represents for every person who wore it, no matter the level.”




Dialing for dollars: Burns wins for third time, enters world Top 10

It hadn’t even been a full week since Sam Burns was feeling a bit lost on the golf course. His game wasn’t that far off, but after leading the richest event in PGA Tour history — The Players – after 36 holes, the subsequent 26th place finish, including a final-round 76, got the former Calvary Baptist Academy and LSU star on the phone in a hurry.

“I called (longtime swing coach Brad Pullin) on Monday and I was like, ‘Man, I’m struggling, I’m not really sure.’ And he was like, ‘I can be there tomorrow,’” Burns said.

Pullin, based just east of Ruston at Choudrant’s Squire Creek Country Club (where Burns now lives), hopped in his car and headed toward his star pupil.

“He drove 12 hours on Tuesday or Monday … I don’t even know, and we just got to work,” Burns said. “He is passionate about what he does and he would do anything for me.”

Sunday, Burns used a final-round rally to successfully defend the Valspar Championship – site of his first PGA Tour victory – in Palm Harbor, Florida. Burns, 25, has now won three times in less than 11 months and vaulted to No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s the first Shreveporter in 16 years to have a place in the Top 10 (David Toms, June of 2006).

“I just try to put in hard work, just try to improve my game every year, every week, look at stats and see what areas I can get better at and then my team and I try to attack those areas,” Burns said. “And that’s all I can control and so I mean, it’s nice to see that those things are paying off. It gives us motivation that we’re working on the right things.”

Burns has quickly become a nice fit among the prior generation of local stars. He’s on pace with Hal Sutton, who won 14 times, including a PGA Championship.

Like Burns, Sutton won for the first time at 24 years old. His third victory – the PGA Championship – also came at 25 years old, His fourth came at age 27. The Centenary product’s longest reign in the Top 10 was 54 weeks (2000-01) and he peaked at No. 4 (2000).

Toms amassed 13 PGA Tour wins (he also won a PGA Championship), but didn’t find the winner’s circle for the first time until he was 30 years old. However, Toms once spent 131 straight weeks in the Top 10 (2001-04) and peaked at No. 5 in 2002.

Burns has a long way to go to catch his mentors, but the expectations for that and more are warranted. He has established himself as a guy who could win on any given week – no one has won more on the PGA Tour in the past 11 months.

Burns has five top-10 finishes (tied for most on the PGA Tour) in 11 events this season. He’s second in the FedExCup and a lock to play on this year’s United States President’s Cup team.

Even though the flood gates have opened for Burns on the PGA Tour, he’s well aware of how precious success can be.

“You just don’t win a lot out here. I mean the percentages are just not in your favor,” he said. “A lot of times somebody else just beats you, somebody else plays better or somebody else gets a break here or there that you didn’t. And that’s just kind of part of the game.

“You don’t want to be frustrated after you finish third or fourth or second or whatever it is, because you did something really well that week and you have to kind of hang your hat on a lot of the good things you did, because once you start going down that path of the negative stuff, it can be tricky.”

Or, you know when to make a call for help.




Burns aims to add a chapter of Shreveport’s Monday magic at The Players

Mother Nature wreaked havoc with the first three scheduled days of The Players Championship and Shreveport’s Sam Burns caught a break and took advantage.

The former Calvary Baptist Academy star held the lead after 36 holes, and when darkness fell on Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, on Sunday, his 7-under score sat just two strokes off the pace with 27 holes remaining.

Players will finish their third rounds beginning at 7 a.m. (CDT) today and will be regrouped according to score for the final round this afternoon.

Burns was part of a group of 44 golfers to make the cut out of the early-late wave over the first 36 holes. Twenty-seven golfers braved the worst of the elements, especially Saturday’s windstorm, to advance.

“I just felt bad for the guys that had to play,” said Burns, who didn’t hit a shot Saturday and watched the carnage on TV. “You never wish that upon your opponents. Over your career, you have good waves and bad waves, but still it just sucks to see.”

Don’t expect the 25-year-old to issue an apology for his draw. His PGA Tour career began by getting slapped by Mother Nature in San Antonio, Texas, seven years ago. As a high school senior, Burns played in the early-late wave of the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio. In the opening round, not a single player in the early wave broke par amid 40 mile-per-hour winds.

“I shot a million, but that one was tough,” said Burns, who barely broke 90 in the opening round.

The LSU product has come a long way since the windswept morning in the Hill Country. He capped a record-breaking college career with the Jack Nicklaus Award (best Division I golfer). His professional victory came early, as did his graduation from the Korn Ferry Tour to the PGA Tour.

After a couple of close calls early in his professional PGA tour career, Burns captured his first PGA Tour title at the Valspar Championship near Tampa Bay in May. Five months later, Burns collected victory No. 2 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Today offers the chance at his biggest day in his career, beginning with the trophy regarded as the most prestigious outside of the major championships. And the record $3.6 million first prize isn’t a bad complement to the gold hardware.

Burns has recently climbed into the top 20 in the Official World Golf Rankings, so a victory would be far from a Cinderella story. In less than four years on Tour, Burns has proven he belongs with the top names in the game.

Of course, many of those names are also in the hunt.

Anirban Lahiri leads at 9-under, but 31 golfers are within five strokes of the lead entering today’s marathon finish, including Justin Thomas (-4), Patrick Reed (-4) and Sergio Garcia (-4).

It’s unlikely those looking to break through have karma on their side like Burns, who aims to become the second golfer from Shreveport to win The Players. Hal Sutton is a two-time winner of the event. The Centenary product captured the event as a young pro in 1983. Then, 22 years ago, when Burns’ family thought little Sammy may grow up to play football, Sutton took out Tiger Woods on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in an epic finish punctuated by five of the most famous words in the game.

Be.

The.

Right.

Club.

Today.

Incredibly, both of Sutton’s Players victories came via Monday finishes.

No matter what happens over the final 27 holes, in April Burns will make his competitive debut at Augusta National Golf Club, where he recently practiced for the Masters with his father, Todd.

If things go right today, it won’t matter how Mother Nature affected the field or what day the event finished on, the trophy will be just as shiny.

And that check will cash.




The elusive NCAA Tournament could have saved D-I Centenary athletics

SO CLOSE: Blaine Russell (defending) was a key part of Centenary teams that came one win short of the 1989 and 1990 NCAA Tournament fields.

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Tommy Vardeman spent 18 years at Centenary College. For a decade, he was an assistant basketball coach under Tommy Canterbury before getting his shot at the top gig, where he lasted eight yearsSBJ spotlight.

In the mid-1990s, Vardeman fielded a question during a speaking engagement in Shreveport.

“This lady asked, ‘I want to know how a school of 960 people is going to play Oklahoma tomorrow night and they’ve got 40,000?’” Vardeman, who fielded similar queries during his near-two-decades stint at the smallest Division I school in the nation, told The Journal.

“I said, ‘We don’t have to play all 40,000, we just have to play five at a time.’”

“The smallest D-I school” moniker was a source of pride throughout the athletic programs.

“We’d tell them when we went to recruit them: ‘You have more people in your high school than we have in our college.’ But we took that on, and we were proud of it,” Vardeman said.

When it came to resources, the deck was often stacked against Centenary, but success wasn’t scarce.

Despite often traveling by RVs, cars and vans, the Gentleman nearly earned a berth in the NCAA Basketball Tournament on multiple occasions. Back-to-back losses in the Trans America Athletic Conference Tournament championship games in 1989 and 1990 were two of the toughest blows.

The 1990 title-game loss to Arkansas-Little Rock came after the Gents (22-8) had won both regular-season games.

In the end, dwindling enrollment and a lack of money skewered one heck of a David versus Goliath story. Finally, a decade ago, Centenary athletics dropped to Division III.

As the conference tournaments wind down and a new darling will undoubtedly surface during the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, it’s a good time for a “What if?” or two.

What if the Gents could have collected a TAAC tourney title? What if the tiny program from Shreveport had unveiled itself as a Cinderella of March Madness — even just once?

“I think making it to the Big Dance would have truly changed Centenary’s fate,” former Gents great and seven-year NBA veteran Larry Robinson told The Journal. “We would have let the whole world see how competitive we were back then.”

Look no further than Florida Gulf Coast, nationally a relative unknown in Fort Myers, Florida, before a remarkable run in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The group known as “Dunk City” had Division I status for less than two years before it slayed No. 2-seed Georgetown and No. 7-seed San Diego State to become the first 15 seed in the history of the Tournament to reach the Sweet 16.

The effect — on and off the court — in southwest Florida was incredible after the school’s first Tournament appearance.

Out-of-state admission applications spiked 88 percent for 2013-14. Overall, applications jumped 29.9 percent. In less than three years following the tournament appearance, FGCU Athletics expanded its scholarships by 50 percent. A $7 million plan went into motion to improve the home of the basketball team, Alico Arena. The Eagles Club, which helps fund scholarships, recruiting and special projects, nearly tripled in the three years after “Dunk City’s” coming out party.

And Florida Gulf Coast is just one example.

Centenary’s postseason losses to rival UALR cut even deeper if you ponder what could have been.

“Getting the smallest Division I school in the country to play on national TV against one of the top teams in the country — it would make people ask about Centenary. They may know they had a good basketball program and find out they had a great math program,” said Cory Rogers, a former Centenary student and sports information director. “It was a PR dream.”

Vardeman was saddened at the fate of Centenary athletics, but has no “ill feelings” toward the school.

“Because of financial reasons it got so hard to compete, but I spent 18 years there and I had two daughters who cheered there and graduated from there. And they’re still in the area,” Vardeman said. “A tournament appearance could have changed it all. Anything can happen.

“We scrambled around. One time we arrived at the Baylor tournament and we had to use the choir bus. My friend who coached at Auburn joked, ‘Vardeman done brought the choir.’”

Rogers recalled the team driving as far as Charleston, South Carolina, to play.

The Gents were one victory shy of changing history in some years, a couple of wins in others.

“If we could have won one of those conference finals games, it would have changed the course of not only basketball, but everything for Centenary,” Rogers said.

Photo by JOHN ARMISTEAD




Pickleball mania engulfs Shreveport-Bossier City

If a local chapter of Pickleballers Anonymous is ever formed, Shreveport’s Debbie Monsour may be the first person in line who needs help.

“I’m so addicted,” Monsour said. “I go to bed thinking about pickleball, I wake up thinking about pickleball.”

Aptly dubbed by others the “Pickleball Queen,” Monsour is not alone. Pickleball, a hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping pong is the fastest growing sport in the nation and northwest Louisiana does not appear to be left behind.

Locally, there are inside courts, outside courts, permanent courts and temporary courts.

The laundry list of pickleball venues includes Christ United Methodist Church, Cypress Baptist Church in Benton, Hot Wheels Skate Rink, Noel Methodist Church, Querbes Tennis Center, Shady Grove Community Center, Southern Hills and the YMCA of Northwest Louisiana.

Pickleball is also available at Stonebridge, East Ridge, Pierremont Oaks, Southern Trace country clubs and Bellaire Fitness for members only and invited guests.

Unlike Monsour, fellow Shreveporter Adam Young has a strong tennis background, but he’s also a huge fan of pickleball. Young finds the social aspect appealing and appreciates how easy it is compared to tennis to find pickup games.

However, like Monsour, Young is possessed by the competition.

“There are two different styles,” Young said. There is the textbook style, which includes dinks. I hit it as hard as I can — not textbook.”

Pickleball, a sport for all ages, was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island (near Seattle) by three enterprising dads – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. Like tennis, it can be played in singles or doubles.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 Topline Participation Report, there are nearly five million pickleball players in the United States.

Monsour, 54, urges those who would like to be introduced to the game follow “Shreveport-Bossier City Pickleball” on Facebook for information on the numerous opportunities.

The game has a few “ambassadors” and Monsour and Young singled out Jack Varuso as integral for the game’s growth locally.

“He’s very instrumental in getting people connected and he also does pickleball bootcamps,” Monsour said.

One local country club had a little drama when it looked to install pickleball courts and a couple of members threatened to quit.

“I can see where they could be somewhat threatened,” said Monsour, who first played the sport five years ago at Calvary Baptist (there are no longer courts there) and was quickly hooked. “There are tennis courts all over the country that have closed down and now have nothing but pickleball.”

Guthrie Park in Longview (Texas) recently replaced its tennis courts with six pickleball courts.

“Every tennis player I ever met ended up loving pickleball,” said Monsour, a former softball player whose competitive spirit was reborn by pickleball. “They just have to try it.”

Young says he knows many members at Southern Trace who have become obsessed with pickleball after the golf course was closed for renovations.

A light week contains five playing days for Monsour, who has traveled out of the country for pickleball clinics. Recently, she lined up three pickleball events in a single day.

“It’s not as hard on you physically (as tennis), but you get winded and you get your cardio workout,” Monsour said. “It’s such a friendly sport. I love the competition, but it ends up being a big family of people.”




Grambling proves it’s not ready for prime time

Grambling State University erased the excitement from a much-needed “shot in the arm” and shot itself in the foot in no time.

Monday, as the controversy over the hiring of Art Briles came to a boil, the embattled former head coach of Baylor’s football team resigned as Grambling’s offensive coordinator.

Was this Briles’ choice? The university’s? Does it matter? It’s clear the school wasn’t proud of the move from the get-go.

Briles boasts an impressive on-the-field resume — two Big XII championships and a 65-37 record with the Bears. He transformed a gridiron afterthought into a contender. Football-wise, he’s a steal for most programs, especially one in the SWAC.

So, when one of the most historic football entities in the nation added that guy, you would have thought a concerted effort to gloat from the top of the tallest mountain would ensue — to let the world know Deion Sanders wasn’t the only thing to watch in the SWAC.

Instead, Grambling flew under the radar due to Briles’ off-the-field baggage. His last foray in the college game ended when he was fired from Baylor in 2016 following an investigation into how allegations of rapes and sexual assaults — involving members of the school’s football program — were handled by coaches and administrators.

Briles wasn’t the only person fired at Baylor, and he wasn’t penalized by the NCAA. The only pro or college organizations that aimed to help Briles resuscitate his career came in the Canadian and Italian football leagues.

Until this half-hearted attempt.

Grambling’s new head coach, Hue Jackson, took a chance on Briles, but there was no pomp, no circumstance — not even a press release or a story on Grambling’s website. Instead, the school let KTAL, Shreveport’s NBC affiliate and host of “G-Men Nation,” confirm rumors with an “exclusive interview” with Briles.

Whether or not the questions were discussed in advance, KTAL’s Sam Rothman did ask the tough ones, but Briles didn’t exactly hit the answers out of the park.

With the cat out of the bag, Grambling still didn’t seem too excited to tell the world about its new addition.

When Jackson was hired in December, Grambling proudly rolled out the red carpet and was happy to relay sentiments from Jackson’s former players and Grambling legends.

“It’s such an amazing day at Grambling,” school president Rick Gallot said at the introductory presser.

The past few days haven’t been so good.

Things went so far south, the living face of Grambling reconsidered his affiliation with the school.

“I’m not a fan at all. I’m very, very disappointed in Grambling, I really am,” Doug Williams told Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post. “I talked to (athletic director Trayvean Scott) a couple times. They knew where I stood, but they did it and if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. I’m out.”

Two months ago, Williams called the Jackson hire a “shot in the arm.”

“It’s time for the family to surround him,” Williams, a former Tigers quarterback and head coach and current senior advisor to the Washington Commanders (former Redskins/Football Team), said.

It didn’t take long for the tide to turn in Lincoln Parish.

This wasn’t some random alum lashing out at his former school — it was Doug freaking Williams — a Grambling legend on the field/sideline, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl and a black man who worked his way into an NFL front office (that’s not easy). Oh, and he has a street named after him on campus.

If you build a Mount Rushmore of Grambling football, two spots are guaranteed: the late, great Eddie Robinson, and Williams. There are several worthy candidates to sort through for the other spots.

Should Briles have been hired? Opinions vary, but Grambling should’ve acknowledged the controversy and vehemently backed its hire from Day 1. New dog mascots get more public encouragement from their athletic programs than Briles received.

Jackson broke his silence and supported his OC with terms such as “forgiveness, redemption and enlightenment.” But this came on Monday, four days after the hire. Through his personal foundation.

Hours later, Briles was gone.

I’m on the “everyone deserves a second chance” bandwagon, but those chances are often most appropriate in different roles. For instance, a front-office gig or a television analyst would offer a better way for Briles to retake the national stage. His skills and expertise would be utilized and you avoid placing a man the NCAA said “did not report potential criminal conduct by a football student-athlete and did not personally look any further into the matter” in a similar position.

Briles may never repeat past errors, but Grambling’s move carried significant risk and they needed to own it. Instead, the school’s passiveness revealed an obvious reluctance from somewhere in the university’s structure to embrace Briles and his baggage.

So, why make the hire in the first place? It was risky business for a storied program that didn’t need the controversy.

One thing is obvious: The current administration doesn’t appear to be ready for prime time.




First weekend demonstrates abundant local talent in college baseball

We’ve detailed the mind-boggling number of local athletes who played in the NFL during the 2021 season. One (Robert Rochell) of the 16 emerged a Super Bowl champion. As we put away the pigskin in favor of leather, there is plenty of reason to be excited about another batch of local prep products.

The opening weekend for college baseball featured the debut of one of the most-hyped freshmen in this area’s history, Byrd brothers joining forces in Ruston and the start of the sophomore season for a slugger at LSU.

Not surprisingly, the local depth on the diamond is profound. Exhibit A: Former Parkway star Amani Larry stole the show.

Larry hit safely in all three games for New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Classic and capped a dazzling opening weekend with a walk-off (run-rule) home run on Sunday as the Privateers rattled off victories against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling and Alabama State.

“This weekend was amazing,” Larry told The Journal on Sunday. “I’d like to thank God for this opportunity. I’ve been working for this since I was a kid and all the long nights and trusting the process is starting to show. The walk-off was a great feeling but we know there’s more work to be put in with Kansas coming to town next weekend.”

The sophomore, who spent last season at East Central Community College, scored seven runs and collected five RBIs and two stolen bases over the weekend.

Larry wears No. 9 in honor of a family friend: Juan Pierre, a former Major Leaguer (14 seasons) and World Series champion (Florida Marlins, 2003). On Friday, the former high school star in Alexandria, a 2017 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee who posted a .295 career average and collected 614 stolen bases, tweeted:

“I’ve watched this kid grow up @alarry21 and proud of the young man he has become on and off the field!! I pray you have a great season continue to keep God 1st!! It’s your time!! #beastmode”

The success of 318ers extended to Huntsville, Texas.

Last year, Nebraska was one win from knocking Arkansas out of the Fayetteville (Ark.) Regional. This weekend, former Byrd start Trent Touchet helped Sam Houston take three of four games from the Cornhuskers.

The first baseman, a senior, started all four games and pounded out six hits in 13 at-bats, including a ninth-inning home run in Game 2 of Saturday’s doubleheader. Touchet scored four runs and added four RBIs against the Big Red this weekend.

And how about former Calvary Baptist quarterback Cade Hart, who has already made four appearances on the mound for LSU-Eunice? The sophomore has pitched 15 innings, allowed just a single earned run en route to a 2-0 record. He’s struck out 17 batters, allowed 10 hits and walked four batters.

This weekend provided several more standouts not mentioned. As the season progresses, the headlines will often include former Haughton star Peyton Stovall, whose career at Arkansas began with a 2-for-13 weekend. Stovall is the Preseason SEC Freshman of the Year and was a projected first-round pick in the 2021 draft before he pulled his name to play for the Hogs.

Many will have an eye on Hayden Travinski, a former standout at Airline. The LSU sophomore has a big-time bat and will look to garner more time at the plate and behind it this season.

In Ruston, freshman Slade Netterville joined brother Steele, a senior and fellow Byrd alum. Louisiana Tech’s sweep of Wichita State included a victory by Jonathan Fincher (another Byrd product) and sets up a showdown of 3-0 teams, the Bulldogs and LSU, at the Love Shack on Wednesday. Already a sellout, it will be one of the most-anticipated college baseball games in North Louisiana.

At every level, it’s clear the 2022 college baseball season promises to be another showcase for the former prep athletes who cut their teeth in Northwest Louisiana.

MAKING PARKWAY PROUD: Amani Larry had a huge weekend at the plate for his new team, the UNO Privateers. (Photo courtesy UNO Athletics).




Lang’s Locks: Super Bowl prop bets

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Sports betting got started in Louisiana just in time for the Super Bowl.

Lang’s Locks makes a special appearance for the Big Game.

If you haven’t opened an account with an online sportsbook, email me (roylangiii@yahoo.com) and I will send you referral codes to earn you bonus cash.

Notes

All bets are measured in units. For instance, if your normal bet on a game is $100, that is one unit. If the bet is listed as .2 units, it’s a $20 bet.

Best line (as of Thursday) is listed in parenthesis. Find the best price, one key to being a successful sports bettor! Shop around!

Sportsbook legend

CAE: Caesar’s
FD: Fan Duel
MGM: Bet MGM
DK: DraftKings
BS: Barstool

SUPER BOWL PROPS

Coin Toss: Tails never fails

Player props (.1 units on all)

Over Stafford 1.5 touchdown passes (CAE)
Over Stafford .5 interceptions (MGM)
Over Burrow .5 interceptions (CAE)
Over Stafford 279.5 passing yards (BS)
Over Akers receiving yards 15.5 (FD)
Over Mixon receiving yards 24.5 (BS)
Over OBJ receiving yards 62.5 (BS)
Over receptions Van Jefferson 2.5 (BS)
Over Akers receptions 2.5 (BS)
Under Stafford rushing yards 5.5 (BS)
Over Akers rushing yards 63.5 (BS)
Under Burrow rushing yards 11.5 (BS)

First TD scorer

Trent Taylor +15000 (MGM)

Anytime TD scorer

Akers +128 (BS)
OBJ +140 (FD)
Higgins +175 (FD)
Trent Taylor +2800 (BS)




Epic finish decade ago capped prep collisions of Cincy teammates

WILSON’S WINNER: Calvary’s Brandon Wilson breaks off a 73-yard touchdown to beat Evangel in the final minute of their 2011 matchup

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Phillip Deas didn’t need the ESPN Predictor App to tell him he was in great shape on Oct. 21, 2011. The then-head coach of the Evangel Eagles had a 38-35 lead on rival Calvary and the Cavaliers faced fourth-and-3 at their own 27 with a minute remaining.

“Who would not take those odds?” Deas said. “They’re 70-something yards away and they’ve got to score. You’re feeling pretty good. What are they going to do on fourth down? Not that it’s in the bag, but the ESPN app would say the chances you’re winning the game are pretty high.”

Well, Brandon Wilson annihilated Deas’ algorithm and the Eagles’ hearts.

“I got hit in the backfield, but everyone knows what happened next,” Wilson told The Journal.

The senior eventually found the sideline en route to a 73-yard touchdown to secure the victory for the Cavaliers at Jerry Barker Stadium. It marked Wilson’s fourth score of the night (including a 99-yard kickoff return TD in the third quarter).

That chapter in the one-sided (Evangel is 8-2 in the now-defunct series) but spirited rivalry was the last of three times Wilson and Evangel’s Trent Taylor met on the high school football field.

The superstars didn’t have much of a relationship in high school, but things changed a decade later.

Today, the duo wear the same colors – orange with the black stripes of the Cincinnati Bengals – and are set to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday in Los Angeles.

“He’s two lockers over from me; that’s really cool,” Wilson said.

Taylor caught a go-ahead touchdown in the second half of the wild 2011 affair. He posted a 3-1 mark against Calvary and scored at least once in each of the final three meetings.

“When we were playing against guys like Brandon Wilson, I’m glad we had a Trent Taylor on our side to kind of match them player for player,” Deas said.

Much gets made of Taylor’s hands of glue, but Deas says Taylor, who hauled in a game-tying two-point conversion in the AFC Championship Game, is the “most competitive individual” he ever coached.

He once told his mother, Jeannie: “Trent Taylor would bite your toe off if that meant he could win.”

Said Deas: “At 5-foot-8, you gotta have more than great hands to get to the NFL.”

The Shreveport Bengals have felt the Louisiana love all season. In addition to teammates Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, former LSU stars, there is even a Cincinnati cheerleader from Byrd.

“Once the Saints and Cowboys were lost, everybody jumped on the Bengals bandwagon,” said Wilson, who is on injured reserve with a torn ACL. “I already knew that was going to happen.”

Sunday’s stage will be massive, but it won’t erase the memories of those Calvary-Evangel days.

“The city came out, almost like the Byrd-Shreve games,” Wilson said. “It was always cool to be in that atmosphere.”

Especially when you’re the guy who wrecked mathematics.

“It just goes to show what one great player committed to making great plays can do,” Deas said. “Brandon Wilson is a great player and was committed to making a great play. Man, that’s what he did. He broke our hearts and he made their day. That’s the way it should be in those games.”

Photo by KELLY YOUNG

VIDEO: Courtesy of KTBS-3




Pederson: the ‘miracle’ the Jaguars need?

Nearly four years ago to the day, deep in the bowels of U.S. Bank Stadium, moments after the “Philly Special” became legendary, Doug Pederson thanked the Philadelphia Eagles — players, coaches and administration — for believing in his process.

“You guys get on me a lot about dress code and the way we practice and do things,” Pederson said as he addressed his team following a 41-33 victory against New England in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. “This is the discipline it takes to win this game. This is a team game.”

Three years later, Pederson’s run in Philadelphia came to an end after five seasons, despite three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship. A voluntary year’s respite from coaching and the NFL ensued.

Thursday, not long after he agreed to become the new leader of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the man whose head coaching career began at Calvary Baptist Academy (2005-08) couldn’t wait to start building another championship foundation. Though it was nearly midnight, he needed to place a cornerstone.

And a phone call.

He got soon-to-be second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the face of the Jaguars, on the line

“We got to know each other and then he began to lay out his philosophies,” Lawrence said. “His resume speaks for itself. He’s an offensive guy. He played quarterback in the NFL (for 10 seasons). He sees things through my lens. All of those things make me really excited. Everybody is relieved.”

The Urban Meyer experiment left the Jaguars in shambles. Pederson, 54, knew the pieces had to be put back together as soon as possible.

“I know you’ve been through a lot,” Pederson said at his introductory press conference. “That’s about to change. I’m going to come to work every single day with the task to make this a winning organization.”

Jacksonville played in the AFC Championship Game just five years ago but has finished last in the AFC South in every season since, compiling a 15-50 record along the way.

It made sense, especially after the Meyer fiasco, for owner Shad Khan to take his time with this hire. In December, Pederson was the first candidate interviewed. More than a month later, it was the former Northeast Louisiana University (now Louisiana-Monroe) star’s job.

“That’s a tribute to Doug,” Khan said. “Our list of candidates was quite impressive. Philadelphia (was) a lot like Jacksonville (is) — we’re looking for the first championship.

“Doug is a great developer of quarterbacks, he creates a culture players and coaches thrive in, and he’s someone who knows exactly what it feels like to be the last team standing in February.”

With so many head coaching vacancies during this cycle, Pederson was swayed in his decision by teams’ quarterback situations. He believes he landed a gem in Lawrence, the former Clemson star.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says nothing but great things (about Lawrence),” Pederson said. “The sky’s the limit. Unfortunately, things didn’t go smoothly for him last year, but I will create a system that enhances his skill set.”

Pederson described his year off as “great.”

“I needed a break. I needed to step away and re-center everything about me,” he said.

Family was the theme. Pederson and wife, Jeannie, watched their oldest son get married and welcomed a grandchild. They also leaned on family as Pederson’s brother succumbed to cancer.

Pederson knew where 2022 was headed, however.

“Did I miss football? Yeah,” he said. “I needed my fix of football. The year away got my football competitive juices back and I started building that new family in the locker room as soon as I got here.”

If the Jaguars succeed, it won’t be just on the right arm of Lawrence or X’s and O’s. It will be Pederson’s ability to get 53-plus players, a coaching staff and management to buy in to the mantra he established in Philadelphia, the one the Eagles sang in unison in Minneapolis.

“An individual can make a difference, but a team makes a miracle.”

The Jaguars certainly need one.

Pederson as a head coach in Philadelphia

Season, Record (Division finish), Playoff result

2016: 7-9 (4th)
2017: 13-3 (1st), Won Super Bowl
2018: 9-7 (2nd), Lost divisional round
2019: 9-7 (1st), Lost wild card
2020: 4-11-1 (4th)
Total: 42-37-1 in regular season; 4-2 in playoffs

Coaching Resume

2005-08, Head coach, Calvary Baptist Academy
2009-10, Eagles offensive quality control coach
2011-12 Eagles quarterback coach
2013-15, Chiefs offensive coordinator
2016-2020, Eagles head coach




I’m a lot like my parents and I’m good with that

As the commercials say: Progressive Insurance — even Dr. Rick — can’t save us from becoming our parents.

I used to chuckle at my parents — my father, specifically, when he would babble about the old times, how Father Time has bulldozed so many cool things and awesome people and the good today didn’t compare to the good of yesterday.

The discussions about his generation vs. mine were exacerbated due to the fact he was 46 years my senior. Four decades later, I’m that guy. And dang it, I’m OK with that.

Lately, my perspective is altered and my awareness of the ticking clock heightened. It came to a head this weekend.

In December, I witnessed the final days of Dania Jai Alai, my place of employment and fun for years in South Florida. Jai alai is a glorious pari-mutuel sport (you can bet on it) insanely popular before lotteries came along.

Jai alai’s time had come and gone. It was sad to see it end.

On a trip to Miami last week, the blossoming star I caddie for — LSU and Byrd product Philip Barbaree — played Korn Ferry qualifying events at two courses — Weston Hills and International Golf Links of Miami (aka, Melreese) — that hosted many of my biggest competitions from years ago.

I took my first golf lesson at Melreese four decades ago and wondered if the pro, Charlie DeLucca, was still around. As we arrived at the course, a giant banner read: “Charlie DeLucca Memorial Golf Tournament.”

Apparently not.

Even the golf course I adored hadn’t survived. Well, not the course I knew. Melreese has been renovated, given a new name and is on life support as a group led by David Beckham plans to dig it up and build a soccer stadium.

I recalled plenty of other memories, people and landmarks during tournament week. I’m sure Philip tuned out at some point. I can’t blame him. I used to.

I don’t necessarily believe the new days aren’t as good as the old, but I sure do miss certain things, certain feelings.

My recent emotional journey tormented me the most on the day of my return to Shreveport, when I took the first flight home Thursday to ensure I’d be in attendance for Calvary soccer’s Senior Night.

I married in 2019 and was incredibly lucky to have three special people enter my life — my wife, Christi, and children Raelee and Colton.

This is Raelee’s senior year at Calvary. I’ve watched her play varsity soccer since she was in eighth grade. She’s not exactly Renaldo, but has scored multiple goals (and they cost me money) every season. However, this year has been a challenge. She’s still 4-foot-nothing and playing time has decreased — a credit to the improvement made by Calvary under head coach Adam Hester.

Raelee probably wanted more out of her senior year, at least ONE goal, but Thursday offered an opportunity to exit in style.

One thing was clear from the start: The Cavaliers had a mission to get Raelee that elusive tally. Between Raelee’s soccer and Colton’s hockey/soccer, I’ve watched hundreds of games with the same wishes: health, victories and some dang goals.

Goal scoring defines those sports. It offers validation for young athletes even though goals don’t always accurately represent personal performance.

I’d like to say I spent 80 minutes on the edge of my seat Thursday, but it’s more complicated. As the game progressed, the nerves intensified. Raelee took shot after shot with the help of her unselfish teammates. A save, a ball wide, a slight shank — the ball did everything but touch the twine. When she crashed the net, the ball would deflect the opposite direction.

Again, all I could think about was my father, who walked every fairway of every tournament I played. In this moment, I finally realized how much he lived and died with every golf shot. He wanted the glorious moment to emerge; not for him, but for me.

I did not understand until Thursday. Yes, we want to walk with our chest out with a that’s-my-kid grin. It’s fun, but the look on their faces when in those moments are unmatched.

Raelee needed this. There was no way the man above wouldn’t let it happen to the sweetest human on earth.

Well, Raelee only had an assist to her credit when the clock ran out on Calvary’s 7-0 victory despite her best (by far) effort of the season. I was crushed.

I thought she’d be a wreck. Nope. She came off that field with a smile and made sure we were still going to eat quesadillas.

I could again hear my father: “Not everyone walks off the field a hero.”

If all enjoyed a Hollywood ending, such things wouldn’t be so special.

My parents are gone, and it sucks. But like the trip down memory lane in Miami, the memories and life lessons are vibrant and will be passed on.

Raelee’s time is coming.

Photo by KIM JOHNSON




Mudbugs, Brahmas continue decades-long ‘war’ at The George this weekend

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Rivals.

The competition between the Shreveport Mudbugs and Lone Star Brahmas is best described in that one word. The hockey adversaries are poster boys for the definition.

Mudbugs head coach Jason Campbell often uses another descriptor.

“War.”

The competition is even, the titles are plentiful.

It’s a good bet the road to the Robertson Cup travels through Shreveport and/or North Richland Hills, Texas. The cities were the home to three of the past four Robertson Cups in the North American Hockey League (Shreveport, 2018 and 2021; Lone Star, 2017). The teams have led the South Division in four of the past five seasons (Shreveport, 2017-18 and 2020-21; Lone Star 2016-17 and 2019-20).

The head coaches were teammates during Shreveport’s days of professional hockey and Dan Wildfong, the Brahmas’ leader, is arguably the greatest Mudbugs player of all time. However, he left in his prime to coach the Brahmas (2007). Ever since, the Mudbugs and their fans often wonder if they see a mirror image of their team.

Friday and Saturday, the Brahmas (20-9-6) visit George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum. Lone Star is in a familiar position, three points from the top of the South. There’s one twist at this point in the 2021-22 season. The Mudbugs (15-14-5), who have never missed the playoffs as a member of the NAHL, are five points behind the final postseason position and are desperate for wins.

“These are the games coaches are talking about in practice when we say ‘Stay engaged and challenge each other. You have to compete against each other, get the best out of each other,’” Campbell said. “Teams like Lone Star are relentless, coming after you in all areas of the rink. If you don’t match that it could be a rude awakening come Friday and Saturday.”

The Brahmas swept the only series played between the two – 3-2 and 9-2 on Nov. 12-13 in Texas.

The conflict extends off the ice, too. Even the recruiting battles are intense for two desirable destinations.

“(Fighting for recruits) happens knowingly (between the teams),” Campbell said. “I’m sure there is a lot more I don’t know, that (Wildfong) doesn’t know. It is ongoing.”

Campbell is already thrilled about one aspect to this weekend at The George.

“We should have everyone available to us,” he said.

This deep into a hockey season, health is an anomaly.

“It’s great news,” Campbell said.

Mudbugs vs. Lone Star

Friday, Saturday, 7:11 p.m.

George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum

Photo: Christi Lang




Independence Bowl, Radiance Technologies make best of lost year

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Like most businesses, 2020 was a challenge for the Independence Bowl. The 11th-oldest postseason college football game was to produce its first chapter under new title sponsor Radiance Technologies and the debut of a round-robin tie-in system.

Fallout from Covid-19 cancelled the Army vs. Pac-12 matchup, an unfortunate way to begin the new relationships.

One year later, the game returned in style. The highest-ranked team (No. 12 BYU) in the history of the I-Bowl faced UAB on Dec. 18 in front of a network (ABC) audience for the first time in seven years.

“It was great (to be back in the bowl business),” Independence Bowl executive director Missy Setters told the Journal. “We were holding our breath (the game would go on this year).”

In the end, the lost year offered the I-Bowl and Radiance Technologies a unique opportunity — 20 months to prepare for their first dance.

“The extra time built our partnership despite the fact there wasn’t a game,” Setters said. “After that disappointment (in 2020), it gave us time to sit down and evaluate all the events we were doing and work with Radiance to see what their vision was – it worked out well.”

The 2021 edition, won by UAB, 31-28, produced 3.22 million viewers million viewers (coincidentally boosted by a Covid-cancelled NFL game set to run concurrently), the largest audience for the game since 2015 (Georgia Tech-Tulsa, 3.42M). Viewership jumped 36 percent from the previous edition on ESPN two seasons ago (Louisiana Tech-Miami, 2.37 million).

This year, it’s Army’s turn against a member of The American Athletic Conference.

“As far as bowl games go, we have the hardest working staff and group of volunteers in the country — a lot of folks before me who have worked hard for years to get this foundation to a point where it is today,” said this year’s bowl chairman, Rob Rubel, a Centenary graduate whose term begins in March. “I’m just proud to have a chance to play a role in moving the whole thing a little more in the right direction. Radiance Technologies is as good of a title sponsor as we could have ever hoped for.”

More changes to the I-Bowl’s schedule are expected. In September, BYU (currently an Independent) announced the intention to join the Big-12 (likely in 2023). The Cougars were to return to Shreveport against the Pac-12 in 2023 and Conference USA in 2025, the final year of this bowl cycle.

Replacement options (if needed) are expected to be discussed soon.

Now, it’s time for I-Bowl officials and Radiance Technologies to turn their attention toward Shreveport’s 46th bowl game.

“Everything we’ve heard (Radiance) was really happy,” Setters said. “We’re reviewing things (about the 2021 game) from our end and they are doing the same. We’re going to put that feedback together and start planning for this year.”

Independence Bowl tie-in schedule

2020: Army vs. Pac-12 (cancelled)
2021: BYU vs. C-USA (UAB)
2022: Army vs. The American
2023: *BYU vs. Big-12
2024: Army vs. Pac-12
2025: *BYU vs. C-USA
*BYU likely to be replaced with its move the Big-12

Photo: courtesy UAB Athletics




Run with the bulls in Pamplona, then fear a walk across a bridge; mental health is a monster

A couple of things that have always defined my life: the need for adrenaline, sometimes bordering on stupidity, and a lack of fear. If you needed a poster boy (minus my face) for “you only live once,” I’m your guy.

I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, drove a car at 165 miles per hour at Texas Motor Speedway and hosted hundreds of events in front of thousands of people. I embraced the challenges and situations. Competition has always lit my fire. When I played golf, the tournament brought out my best.

Therefore I was shocked in 2020, when my wife and I were set to walk the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami when my legs said no. They began shaking. My chest started pounding. Sure, the bridge climbs high (maybe 50 feet) above the magnificent water of Biscayne Bay, but I’ve traveled this path numerous times — it’s a top-five place I love to go in South Florida.

Eventually, I made it across the bridge, but wondered what had just happened.

A couple of months later, I headed to Baton Rouge to pick up Philip Barbaree for PGA Tour Canada qualifier (his first career Tour qualifying school) in Dothan, Ala. About 2 hours into the trip, I was suddenly stricken with a wild heartbeat and was forced to the shoulder of I-49.

Not even 5 minutes later, the issue intensified. I called my wife in a panic. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and had no idea if I should call 9-1-1. I’m fairly stubborn and proceeded – making Philip find his way at the last minutes wasn’t an option.

After the first round of the tournament, I couldn’t sleep and had another episode. I hitched an Uber to a Dothan hospital in the middle of the night. With a serious history of heart issues in my family I figured this was the answer.

A couple of hours later, a doctor walked in with some surprising news: “You had a panic attack.”

Say what? Not me. I’m not scared of anything. I’m a freaking man.

Yes, me.

I returned to the hotel at breakfast time and showed Philip my neat hospital band and sheepishly explained what happened. I’m not even sure I was 100-percent honest because I was so embarrassed. I’m not frail and I didn’t want him to get any such idea.

Philip, then 21 and at LSU, couldn’t have been more accommodating. While I caught a nap before our afternoon tee time, he bought a push cart (thankfully we could employ one in that event) at a local store.

We made it through that event, and Philip earned status, but the next few months were sketchy. The country shut down due to Covid that weekend and I had a lot of questions that needed to be answered. I refused daily medication and aimed to curb my issues naturally.

I wanted Philip to succeed so much, I let it get to me months before we even left for the event. Even though I had caddied for him for five prior summers, I drove myself nuts given the importance of this qualifier – the first event that could shape his upcoming professional career. I was paranoid I would get in the way.

I met (virtually of course) with a nutritionist and developed a busy schedule of bike and meditation classes on the Peloton.

The next several events on the bag were challenging to say the least. The anxiety feasted on itself. It didn’t compromise my ability to caddie, but when you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack or pass out when simply walking to the first tee or holding a flag stick, it can mess with your mind and create fear.

As the tournaments went by, not dying on the spot built confidence and helped me believe I could conquer this intangible monster. My improved diet and mind work paid off. It’s amazing how breathing patterns and little mind tricks can calm the brain, the heart and the soul.

By the middle of 2021, the anxiety was curbed, not eliminated (will it ever be?). Now, nervousness is the main emotion, and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re not nervous in big situations, it may not mean enough.

The general perception regarding mental health has changed drastically. Some of the world’s greatest and most successful athletes, Dak Prescott for one, have revealed their struggles within – something unheard of even 10 years ago.

I’m a firm believer people handle anxiety, like any other physical injury, differently. Some can play with a bum ankle, some refuse. I didn’t miss a single shot, and that’s something to behold. I still don’t understand how something so debilitating can happen so suddenly, especially considering my past mind-set, but I know I’m not soft. I’m just human.

And I cannot wait to again attack the Rickenbacker Causeway.

Photo: by CHRISTI LANG

Downtown Miami from the Rickenbacker Causeway




Campbell hasn’t stopped coaching Mudbugs, family through wife’s battle with cancer

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Coaches coach. For most, the switch is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s just in their blood.
Jason Campbell’s family used to get their shots in.  “(Daughter) Maddie would say, ‘OK, here comes the lecture or the pep talk from coach.’”

However, never has the Shreveport Mudbugs’ head coach needed to take his day job home more than the past nine months. Wife, Shanda, and children Maddie, Cade and Aly have needed the positivity Campbell — known as “Soupy” to most — loves to spread on the ice and in the locker room.

While Campbell led the Mudbugs to a Robertson Cup championship in Minnesota in April, Shanda, was in Little Rock, Arkansas undergoing a battery of tests in an attempt to understand why she’d felt bad for months.

Eventually, Shanda was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

“It’s tough watching the person you love struggle,” Jason Campbell said.

The Mudbugs’ offseason was brief, the thorn on the rose of winning a national championship.

Jason Campbell missed the first day of training camp for the 2021-22 season as he was at his wife’s side.

Campbell’s absences were plentiful as the Mudbugs tried to build a team to defend the Cup and Shanda endured a stem cell transplant.

“The team has been awesome, unreal to where you don’t feel guilty going to Arkansas for three weeks at a time or three days at a time for treatments,” Campbell said.

But Campbell never stopped coaching — the Mudbugs or the people who matter most.

“It’s attitude,” Campbell said. “It’s easy for me to say since I’m not the one getting poked and prodded and biopsied. But if she’s not feeling well or is depressed, me feeling that way isn’t going to help things. You have to win the day.

“When I walked in the joke was, “Cinderella is here, ready to wait on you hand and foot.’”

The effects of cancer can be devastating, but one product of the scary situation was the rekindling of the love between best friends of two-plus decades.

Jason and Shanda met via Mudbugs hockey. Shanda is a local, a Jonesboro product who fell in love with a hockey player from Orangeville, Ontario, Canada, signed by the Mudbugs in 1999.

Shanda’s cancer helped them to spend three weeks in a row for the first time in years.

“We had a good time, Jason Campbell said. “As hard as the situation was, we got to take advantage of it in a weird kind of way. We got along great.”

Campbell also found solace in his time with his hockey team.

“There’s so much going on at the rink,” he said. “So much banter, just joking with the boys — you don’t forget (about the gravity of Shanda’s situation), but it’s just a refresher and you’re ready to go back home and deal with things.”

Thanks to a successful stem cell transplant and chemotherapy, Shanda Campbell is on the mend.

Now, the Mudbugs (12-14-4) need to rally.

The franchise endured its worst start in its 25-year history, but Campbell and his players don’t believe It was a product of inconsistencies due to absences by Campbell.

The Mudbugs have plenty of coaching power, including general manager and former head coach Scott Muscutt (the first player signed by the organization prior to its inaugural season of 1997), goaltenders coach Rich Parent (a former NHL netminder) and associate head coach Gavin Morgan.

“Some guys only had a month off after winning the championship,” Campbell said. “Those are guys we planned to lean on heavily this season. And some guys weren’t healthy yet. Guys who hadn’t won a title before had to come down from that. It’s tough to handle being a champion and the next thing you know, you’re back at it and you have a big target on your back.”

Coincidence or not, Shanda’s improvement has allowed Campbell to be around the rink more and the Mudbugs are playing their best hockey.

They recently ripped off a six-game winning streak to get back into playoff contention.

“Watching Soupy is inspiring for me,” Mudbugs assistant captain Billy Fezcko said. “I show up at the rink every day and he’s already there with a smile on his face ready to go and ready to attack the day. You know everything he’s going through and we’re a little more energetic and excited to see him.”

Shreveport forward Jake Onstott understands how hockey serves as a welcomed distraction for his coach. Last season, Onstott’s mother, Julie, suffered a stroke.

“I drove to Dallas and headed home, not knowing if she’s going to live or die,” Onstott said. “It all worked out, but it was so awesome getting texts from the guys and coaches.

“Soupy is one of the strongest guys I’ve ever met, one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played for. When he was gone, we told him we were playing hard for your wife, but it’s so amazing to have him back. We really love Soupy and things wouldn’t be the same without him.”

Shanda made her season debut at George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum after Christmas.

“She freezes her butt off, the temperature in my house is set at like 80 degrees, but she enjoyed getting out,” Campbell said.

Shreveport is back in action as its hosts Corpus Christi tonight and Saturday at The George (puck drop for both games, 7:11 p.m.).

Mudbugs Nation has not disappointed during the Campbells’ tough times. Whether it’s the hundreds of “Shanda Strong” bracelets in the building, or getting stopped in a local restaurant, the support has been unwavering and comes as no surprise.

“They’re just spreading their love,” Campbell said. They’ll grab be after a game and ask how Shanda is doing and say, ‘do you mind if we pray for you?’

“I expect that from them. It’s nice to know you have so many people supporting you.”

Photo by TERI JOHNSON




NFL playoffs stocked with local talent

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

The NFL playoffs kickoff this weekend with 14 hopefuls in search of the Vince Lombardi trophy. Looking for a team to root for? Is your team out of the running (hey, Saints fans!)? Hitch your wagon to one, some or all of the players representing the Shreveport-Bossier City area.

Incredibly, eight players who cut their teeth inside the city limits are on playoff teams. If you widen the search to Webster Parish high schools, the area boasts ten players.

In alphabetical order, here is a look at the locals who could impact the road to the Super Bowl.

Henry Black, Green Bay Packers (DB, Woodlawn)
The second-year pro played in all 17 games for Green Bay this season. The 25-year-old Baylor product played 25 percent of the snaps on defense and hauled in his first career interception with a Week 8 pick of Arizona’s Kyler Murray.

Black (6-foot, 204 pounds) also collected a pair of passes defended and a forced fumble during the regular season.

This will be the undrafted free agent’s second postseason appearance. As a rookie, Black participated on special teams in both of the Packers’ playoff games last year.

Green Bay earned the top seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. The Packers will face the worst-remaining seed next weekend.

Israel Mukuamu, Dallas Cowboys (S, Parkway)
The rookie saw action in four games for Dallas. He played a career-high 22 percent of the snaps on defense in the Week 18 affair against Philadelphia.

Mukuamu (6-4, 205) played at South Carolina before the Cowboys selected him in the sixth round (227th overall) of the 2021 NFL Draft.

The third-seeded Cowboys host No. 6 San Francisco (x-x) on Sunday at 3:30 p.m., at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (QB, Haughton)
The 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year recovered from last season’s devastating ankle injury to lead Dallas to a 12-5 record and another NFC East title. In 16 games, the former Mississippi State star tossed a club-record 37 touchdowns (fourth-best in the NFL) and posted a career-best 68.0 completion percentage mark (fourth-best in the NFL).

Prescott (6-2, 238) makes his third postseason appearance. He’s 1-2 in playoff games (2016, 2018). The former fourth-round draft choice (2016) has completed 66 of 103 passes for 794 yards during his playoff career. He’s tossed five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Robert Rochell, Los Angeles Rams (DB, Fair Park)
The rookie played 11 games for the Rams before being placed on Injured Reserve. The 23-year-old hauled in his first career interception as a pro against the New York Giants in Week 6.

Rochell (6-2, 195) was selected in the fourth round (130th overall) in the 2021 NFL Draft after his career at Central Arkansas.

L’Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs (S, Minden)
The second-year pro played 15 games and collected two INTs this season. Sneed (6-0, 189) has five interceptions during his young career. The former Louisiana Tech star registered one sack, eight passes defended, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble this season.

The fourth-round pick (138th overall, 2020) of the Chiefs will play his second postseason with a heavy heart. Sneed’s two-game absence (Weeks 14, 15) came when he traveled to Minden to be with his family following the stabbing death of his brother, TQ Harrison, in December.

Sneed started all three of the Chiefs’ postseason games during his rookie year and played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in a Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay.

Kansas City grabbed the No. 2 seed in the AFC and will host No. 7 Pittsburgh on Sunday (7:15 p.m.).

Trent Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals (WR, Evangel)
After four seasons in San Francisco, the former Louisiana Tech star signed with Cincinnati for the 2021 campaign. Although he missed the first 13 games of this season, Taylor (5-8, 180) played in the Bengals’ final four contests.

He’s returned four kicks and seven punts for the Bengals, but finally saw significant action on offense in Week 18. He hauled in two of his three targets for a total of 41 yards receiving.

A fifth-round pick (177th overall, 2017) by the 49ers, the 27-year-old has never played in the postseason. He was sidelined with a major foot injury when San Francisco fell to Kansas City in the Super Bowl following the 2019 season.

Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LB, North Webster)
The road toward a second straight Super Bowl championship for White and Tampa Bay begins Sunday against Philadelphia (noon). The Buccaneers earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

White had another stellar season on defense. The third-year pro played every game for the first time in his career. He amassed 128 tackles and 3.5 sacks this season.

Tampa Bay took White (6-0, 237) with the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft after a terrific career at LSU.

The 23-year-old will make his second postseason run. In Super Bowl LV, White picked off Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the end zone on the Chiefs’ final drive of the game.

Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills (CB, Green Oaks)
The fifth-year pro will not play for Buffalo during the postseason. He was place in injured reserve after he tore his ACL on Thanksgiving in New Orleans.

The 26-year-old made one interception and didn’t allow a touchdown in covering in his 11 games played this season. The Bills drafted White in the first round (27th overall) after his impressive LSU career.

Third-seeded Buffalo hosts No. 6 New England on Saturday (7:15 p.m.).

Brandon Wilson, Cincinnati Bengals (DB, Calvary Baptist)
Wilson will not partake in the postseason after he was played on IR following Week 9. The fifth-year pro tore his ACL against the Cleveland Browns. The 27-year-old was selected in the sixth round (207th overall) by the Bengals after his time at the University of Houston.

Wilson has two career kickoff returns for touchdowns in the NFL.

Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys (S, Woodlawn)
The third-year pro played nine games – started three — for the Cowboys this season. Wilson (6-0, 204) battled groin, shoulder and chest injuries and spent one stint on the IR.

The former Texas A&M star, 26, will make his first NFL postseason appearance as part of a spirited Cowboys defense.

Photo: Christi Lang




Prescott topples variety of pain to lead Cowboys back to postseason

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys closed the 2021 regular season in style. Last Saturday, Prescott threw a career-high five touchdown passes in a 51-26 romp over division rival Philadelphia. The Cowboys gained momentum for the postseason with the demolition of a playoff-bound — but depleted — Eagles squad and put the finishing touch on a 12-5 campaign and an NFC East title.

The former Haughton High star leapfrogged Tony Romo and set a franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (37). He also set career marks for completions in a season (410) and competition percentage (68.0). However, as he scurried past the media at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, he winked and said: “The real sh** starts now.”

They don’t pay quarterbacks $160 million to collect regular-season nuggets Prescott dubbed “just stats.”

That kind of cash is earned in the postseason.

Prescott is ready to attack the NFL’s playoff tournament. He can draw from two previous appearances, including a victory against Seattle in the Cowboys’ last postseason trip (2018 season), and is likely to be unfazed when San Francisco visits Arlington, Texas, for a first-round game on Sunday afternoon.

“Dak has played in these games, he’s played a lot of football. We feel very, very strongly about the type of player Dak is, so this is the time to go execute and see where it takes us,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said.

Prescott, 28, has seen his life change significantly since his last run at a Super Bowl berth.

There has been good, like the record-setting contract he signed in March, but the past couple of years have been stuffed with adversity. Prescott lost his brother, Jace, to suicide in April of 2020. A couple of months later, Dak Prescott opened up about his personal struggles with mental health, a longtime taboo subject in the NFL.

He believes the vulnerability he displayed curbed his anxiety and helped make him a better leader.

However, just five games into 2020, his fifth NFL season, a gruesome leg injury derailed the Cowboys’ campaign and left many wondering if Prescott had erred when he made a bet on himself by not signing a long-term contract.

Despite the setback, Dallas owner Jerry Jones showed faith in his signal caller and opened his checkbook.

No. 4 fought through a calf injury early this season and helped Dallas sweep the NFC East (6-0). Now he’s ready for a chance to earn that money and chase the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy.

“None of (the regular season) matters now as we look forward,” Prescott said after Saturday’s victory.

According to Prescott, the 2021 edition of America’s Team has been fueled by a unique cohesiveness.

“You won’t get many teams like this. We have great camaraderie, great brotherhood – I haven’t played on a team where everybody has been this connected in all facets – not just the offense,” Prescott said. “The connection is going to serve us well.”

It’s a good bet Prescott’s battles with adversity will, too.

He lost his mother, Peggy, to colon cancer when he was a sophomore at Mississippi State. He was drafted by Dallas in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft and took the reins of the franchise as a rookie when Romo was injured in the preseason.

Prescott led Dallas to a 13-3 record and a division crown behind 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.

It was a feel-good story then, as is his current plight – conquering mental and physical setbacks and the pressure that comes with being one of the highest-paid athletes in sports.

“I’m excited for Dak. You can’t deny where he was last year and coming back the way he has,” Dallas’ second-year head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a true leader of this football team. I want him to compete and have fun. Everything is attainable, we just have to play to our strengths and he’s a huge part of that.”

Fifteen months ago, Prescott was overcome with emotion as he was carted off the AT&T Stadium turf with a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle. It was a terrible end to a heartbreaking and trying year.

Now, Prescott needs to rip off four straight victories in order to appease the folks who believe a Super Bowl championship is the only appropriate complement to such a gaudy contract.

“You have to win to keep going and we plan on doing that,” Prescott said. “We’re ready to go and looking forward to making a good run.”

This time, Jace will join Peggy in the best seats in the house.

Photo:  Christi Lang