Memorable 2022-23 gives NSU momentum entering 2023-24 athletic year

As the country prepares to celebrate Independence Day early next week, the Northwestern State athletic department found plenty of reasons to smile during the 2022-23 athletic calendar.

And it was not simply because of what its student-athletes accomplished on the field. From all fields or courts of competition and every corner of the NSU athletic department, it made for a well-rounded first full year for Director of Athletics Kevin Bostian.

“When I arrived, I knew this department’s mission statement was to create successful student-athletes who compete in their chosen sport while giving back to the community and performing admirably in the classroom,” Bostian said. “In the past 17 months, I have seen all three of those traits exhibited throughout our department. We demonstrated competitive success, which included the first Southland Conference Indoor Track and Field championship in program history. A number of our student-athletes enjoyed personal success that shined a light on Northwestern State while giving an extraordinary amount of time and effort in and around the Natchitoches community. I look forward to the momentum we built this athletic year continuing in the fall and into the spring of 2024.”  

From a competitive standpoint, Northwestern State tied for fourth in the Southland Conference Commissioner’s Cup, its first top-five finish since the 2014-15 athletic year. Leading the charge was the Lady Demons’ Indoor Track and Field conference title and a pair of runner-up finishes in the outdoor track and field conference meet, but the depth of NSU’s department shined.

Seven of Northwestern State’s 14 sports notched top-three finishes in Southland play.

Joining the track and field teams – both of which finished no worse than second in both indoor and outdoor seasons – men’s basketball produced a second-place finish while football finished third and tennis was in a third-place tie. The Demon football team’s 4-0 start in conference play was its best since 1988.

Volleyball gave Northwestern State a fourth-place finish – its best SLC ranking since tying for third place in 2019 when the Southland featured 13 teams.

Coupled with the across-the-board success of each program came individual attention from student-athletes who produced record-breaking seasons.

Sprinter Zach Beard earned second-team All-American honors in the indoor 60 meters, becoming Northwestern State’s first All-American indoor sprinter since 1998. Beard’s performance was part of an indoor season that saw Mike Heimerman land Southland Conference Women’s Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year and sprinter Sanaria Butler earn Freshman of the Year acclaim.

Butler’s indoor season set the stage for a remarkable outdoor season in which the Port Arthur, Texas, product broke the school 400-meter record twice in two weeks en route to earning honorable mention All-American honors in the event. Butler qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the event, becoming NSU’s first freshman to reach the national meet since 2011.

Butler took home the Southland Conference’s Outdoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year honor while teammate Vanessa Balde added the Outdoor Freshman of the Year to NSU’s haul. Butler’s 400-meter school record was one of three established by NSU in the outdoor season as the women’s 4×400 relay team established a new school mark and Djimon Gumbs did so in the men’s discus.

Those three marks came after the indoor squad broke five school marks. Across the indoor and outdoor seasons, the NSU track program produced 68 marks that rank in the school’s top 10.

Baseball third baseman Michael Dattalo produced one of the best rookie seasons in school history en route to earning Freshman All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball magazine. Dattalo batted .372 and set a school freshman single-season record with 83 hits, which tied for fourth in program history. Dattalo’s Freshman All-American selection made him the third such awardee in the past four years, joining Daunte Stuart (2021) and Johnathan Harmon (2020).

Dattalo wasn’t the only Demon hitter to etch his name in the school record books as Jeffrey Elkins became NSU’s all-time home run king, breaking Daryl Woods’ record that had stood since 1974 and David Fry equaled in 2018. Elkins capped his NSU career with 36 home runs, five more than the previous mark.

While the Demon baseball team reached the semifinals of the Southland Conference Baseball Tournament for the first time since 2018, the Demon basketball team enjoyed a turnaround season, eclipsing the 20-win mark and reaching the Southland Conference Tournament title game for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

The Demons enjoyed a 13-win increase and tied for third nationally in terms of improvement. Senior guard DeMarcus Sharp produced the No. 4 scoring season in school history en route to earning Southland Conference Player of the Year, All-Louisiana Newcomer of the Year and first-team NABC All-District 22 honors. Sharp’s 40-point performance in a Feb. 25 loss at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was the Demons’ first 40-point game since Billy Reynolds hit that mark Dec. 4, 1976.

Sharp was joined on the all-district team by teammate Ja’Monta Black, whose 122 made 3-pointers established a new single-season school record and stand as the second-most single-season 3-pointers in Southland Conference history. Black finished the season fourth nationally in total 3-pointers, 3-pointers made per game and 3-point attempts (325).

He was joined on the All-Louisiana Team by Black, a second-team selection, and Jalen Hampton, Louisiana’s Freshman of the Year.

While the Demons played for a championship on the hardwood, the NSU football team had two shots to secure at least a share of their first Southland Conference title since 2004 thanks to a four-game win streak to start league play. Coupled with NSU’s 2021 season-finale win at McNeese, the run gave the Demons their first five-game Southland win streak since a surge that crossed the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

Individually, wide receiver Zach Patterson earned Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year honors after catching 83 passes, the second-most in school single-season history.

As NSU football and men’s basketball were enjoying turnarounds, the Lady Demon soccer and tennis programs maintained their level of recent success.

The soccer team finished second in the Southland, marking their fourth straight top-two finish in league play. NSU’s 71.1 winning percentage was the second-best mark in program history.

A stout defense that allowed just 14 goals – the fewest in a season of at least 15 matches – and high-scoring forward Olivia Draguicevich helped NSU produce seven all-conference picks, tying for the conference lead, including Gracie Armstrong, the Southland Player of the Year who signed to play professionally overseas. Armstrong later added the All-Louisiana Player and Newcomer of the Year awards to her NSU resume.

Offensively, behind Armstrong and Draguicevich, the Lady Demons scored 44 goals – fourth most in program history and the most since tallying 62 times in 2005.

Draguicevich was named the conference’s Forward of the Year, following a season in which she established NSU’s all-time goal record with 37, doing so with a Senior Night hat trick against Southeastern. Draguicevich was joined in program history by longtime teammate Nicole Henry, who set a school record by appearing in 94 matches.

The Lady Demon tennis team reached the Southland Conference Tournament semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons. NSU also maintained its dominance at the Jack Fisher Tennis Complex, going 8-1 to post its second straight season with one or fewer home defeats.

Paige Wise kept alive another impressive streak, earning first-team All-Southland Conference honors to put an NSU player on the first team for the fifth straight season.

Like its football and men’s basketball counterparts, the NSU volleyball team took a step forward, collecting 19 wins – its highest total since 2019 –while setting school marks for five-set matches played (14) and five-set wins (11). Two of those five-set wins came in the Southland Conference Tournament, propelling NSU to its first semifinal appearance since 2019.

Freshman Reaghan Thompson delivered one of the best statistical debut seasons in program history, leading the Southland and ranking 25th nationally with 148 total blocks to become the first NSU freshman to top the century mark in blocks. She became the first player in program history to record multiple kill-block double-doubles in either a season or a career. She and teammate Jordan Gamble became the first pair of NSU teammates to record 100 blocks in the same season while teammates Ashlyn Svoboda and Symone Wesley became the first pair to notch twin 500-dig seasons.

The Lady Demon basketball and softball teams both reached the conference tournaments behind strong individual performances.

On the court, Candice Parramore became the first Lady Demon to make consecutive All-Southland Conference teams since Janelle Perez did so from 2014-16. In the tournament, Jiselle Woodson knocked down seven of eight 3-pointers to set a single-game tournament mark for 3-point percentage (.875) and to match the single-game mark for made 3-pointers.

On the diamond, NSU’s 79 doubles were the second most in the 15-year Donald Pickett era. Keely Dubois delivered 18 of those doubles to rank 10th nationally.

Away from the field, Northwestern State’s Student Athlete Advisory Council took home the Southland Strong Community Service Award, extending the long-running tradition of NSU student-athletes and personnel making an impact on Natchitoches and other communities. It was Northwestern State’s second such award after capturing the inaugural award in 2014-15 and finishing as the runner-up in 2015-16.

Among the projects Northwestern State’s SAAC took on was hosting the Special Olympics meet held at the Walter Ledet Track and Field Complex in April. Council members handled logistics, organization and publicity for the event as well as serving as encourages and cheerleaders for the competing athletes.

The awards and honors were not limited to competitors.

Longtime NSU Director of Sports Medicine Jason Drury was named the Louisiana Athletic Trainers Association’s College Athletic Trainer of the Year. Drury enters his 18th season on the Northwestern State staff in 2023-24 and has garnered a reputation as “a model of consistency providing a high level of athletic healthcare at NSU.”

While Drury has been a mainstay in the NSU athletic department, first-year academic coordinator Bryn Edmonston Dill attended the N4A Convention in Orlando, Florida, in June, expanding Northwestern State’s academic center profile for NSU’s student-athletes.

“Our support staff is second to none,” Bostian said. “Jason and his staff work tirelessly throughout the season and the offseason to keep our student-athletes healthy and able to perform at their highest levels. Bryn and the academic staff guided our SAAC group to where they elevated what is expected from our student-athletes in terms of service to the Natchitoches community. Competitive excellence is something we strive for, but creating well-rounded human beings who understand the value of education and community service is why we work in this industry. Seeing our student-athletes and staff enjoy such a strong all-around year is gratifying on many levels for all involved.”