University of Central Arkansas coach Cliint Conque concedes there is a bittersweet touch to Saturday’s matchup with Sam Houston State at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
Twelve seniors, who helped lead UCA to a conference co-championship last season and two straight NCAA FCS playoff appearances, will be honored before the game. Three of them will not be able to play because of season-ending injuries. Another senior, defensive back Dominque Brown, should return next year because of a medical hardship since his injury occurred in week 2.
In what was billed in preseason as the climactic showdown game for the Southland Conference title is now a battle for third place. Sam Houston State (8-3, 4-2), the two time national runnerup, has dropped after losses to McNeese State and league champion Southeastern Louisiana. A top 10 team all season in the FCS polls, the Bearkats are likely to move on to the postseason playoffs.
The Bears (6-5, 3-3) will try to assure a winning season in their finale.
"It will be sweet to win and send our seniors out as winners," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "It’s bittersweet to think of what might have been."
Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz is also proud of a talented senior class that helped the Bearkats rise to a national power.
"Five of the seniors (of 18) were here before I got here, but they’ve done a great job of elevating our program," Fritz said. "There are lots of positive memories."
"Coming out of the transition to NCAA Division I, we were trying to establish ourselves as a competitive program on a national level year in and year out," said Conque. "I think this class did that."
The seniors that helped account for 31 victories during their careers are: Quarterback Wynrick Smothers, tight end Chase Dixon, offensive lineman Dominque Allen, defensive backs Jestin Love, Karl Brady, Josh Jones and Marcus Peters; linebackers Justin Heard and Radarious Winston, defensive linemen Matt Horbuckle and Marquis Gaines and long snapper Kirby O’Meara.
If UCA wins, both teams will finish with 4-3 records.
"Finishing in the top four in this league isn’t bad," said Conque