NATCHITOCHES – A pandemic, two hurricanes, an ice storm that damaged water systems and postponed Northwestern State’s season-opening game.
Those are just a few of the things that happened in the 471 days since the Demons football team charged through the purple smoke and played a game in Turpin Stadium.
But all of that will be put aside Saturday when NSU hosts No. 7 Nicholls at 6 p.m. to open a six-game spring schedule.
“It finally feels like football,” said NSU coach Brad Laird, who will begin his third season as the Demons head coach. “We finally got to practice Sunday after the ice cleared, and you could sense we were in game week.
“This football game tops off a really great day at NSU with so many teams playing home games (women’s basketball, men’s basketball, baseball), and it’ll be a great day for the University.”
Magee’s is celebrating NSU’s packed athletics day with Magee’s March Mania, which includes a mask giveaway. The first 300 football fans to enter Turpin’s home stands and the first 50 fans at women’s basketball, men’s basketball and baseball will receive a free mask.
Fans purchasing a Magee’s combo could also win tickets to men’s basketball, baseball or football games.
With Louisiana’s move to Phase 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic response, more Demon fans can watch the return of football in Natchitoches.
Turpin Stadium, as well as every NSU athletics facility, will increase to 50 percent capacity. Tickets are available at nsutickets.com.
Having more fans in the stands is news to the ears of players like junior cornerback Shemar Bartholomew, who is one of the leaders on a defense that returns eight starters.
“It’s wonderful to finally step on the field again, and for this game to be at home,” Bartholomew said. “We’ve been fighting adversity with storms and games canceled, but we’re ready to go play.
“We’re fired up and ready to go. It’s great to play with guys you’ve played with before because you have that chemistry and bond together. You know that guys are going to be in the right position at the right time to make plays.”
The All-Southland Conference defensive back had a breakout second half to the 2019 season when he returned an interception for a touchdown in a win at Sam Houston State before picking off two more passes in the season finale against Stephen F. Austin.
The defense’s strength starts with a veteran linebacker corps that includes seniors Ja’Quay Pough and Blake Stephenson and junior Jomard Valsin that have all started at least one season in their NSU careers.
“These guys have competed in and won games in this conference,” Laird said. “Their experience and leadership filter into other guys who have either transferred in or have been waiting in the wings to play.
“We have experience on the outside with guys like Bartholomew, who really came on at the end of the season. There are a lot of familiar faces out there.”
Fewer familiar faces will line up on offense, but talent won’t be lacking.
Offensive linemen Kenny Sheldon and Jake Gore as well as receivers Kendrick Price Jr. and Gavin Landry make up the core of the offensive returners, but Laird said he’s just as excited to see new faces that haven’t gotten the opportunity to see the field.
“We have some inexperienced guys in terms of playing for NSU, but we’ve seen some of these guys since March, they just haven’t had the opportunity to play a game,” Laird said. “We’ve had three quarterbacks battle it out, and we have a guy in Kaleb Fletcher who has led us to conference wins.
“We’ve got some new receivers and new running backs, but everybody has prepared really hard and will look forward to going out and having fun.”
While the Demons have been lining up against each other this spring, Nicholls (2-0) has two games under its belt.
The Colonels have outscored its two opponents 142-3 in games against Division II Lincoln (Mo.) and Lamar.
LSU and Missouri transfer quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. has filled in nicely for stud Chase Fourcade, combining for nine touchdowns rushing and passing this season.
“Nicholls has had two opportunities to go through the game day experience, and coach (Tim Rebowe) has had a lot of success over the last couple of years,” Laird said. “It’s a great opportunity to see where we are, and we’ll get that every week in the Southland Conference.
“At the end of the day when you’ve waited for 471 days to play football, it really comes down to our execution and if we can do the things we’ve been coached on.”