N-Club inductees turn focus on others

The nine student-athletes and one remarkable team that were honored Saturday morning at the 2023 N-Club Hall of Fame induction ceremony made one thing clear – as much as this day was about them, it was about so many more.

It was a day to honor their parents, their coaches – those who sacrificed to allow this year’s induction class to stand inside Magale Recital Hall and celebrate their on-field accomplishments.

“I want to thank my parents for never forcing me into anything, for allowing me to make my own decisions,” said Erin Hebert, the 2007 Southland Conference Player of the Year and a three-time first-team All-Southland Conference soccer selection. “To my mom, thank you for being so selfless with your time. I didn’t understand it then, but now I see what it meant for you to balance all that you did. During my visit to Northwestern during the festival of lights, I knew this was going to be my home for the next four years.”

Hebert was one of two soccer players among the 10 inductees – a group comprised of competitive-ballot honorees and the largest team inducted into the Hall of Fame, the 2000-01 Northwestern State men’s basketball team.

That group was a family unto itself – a blended family that turned the heartbreak of a loss in the 2000 Southland Conference Tournament championship game into the impetus for Northwestern State’s first NCAA Tournament berth a year later.

That squad also secured the Demons’ first NCAA Tournament victory, a 71-67 opening-round win against Winthrop in Dayton, Ohio, cementing the Demons as “Dayton’s Darlings” for a week.

“That initial team took some losses,” said Ryan Duplessis, who spoke on behalf of his teammates. “With Coach Mike (McConathy) came some other guys. He brought a tremendous assistant coach in Dave Simmons, who held us together. He’d sit down and talk to us, not like kids, but as young men.

“Chris Thompson, Michael Byars-Dawson, Chris Lynch, Kory Wilson, Melvin Roberts, D’Or Fischer, Michael Edwards. Those guys came in. When you already have people in place, you feel you have ownership. These guys were accepting of us, and they earned our respect from Day One. I love ’em. I wouldn’t want to play with anyone else. Northwestern State is near and dear to my heart, and it is a blessing and an honor to share the stage with you guys.”

The bond between the group of 2000-01 players who showed up Saturday was as tight as any, but none of them arguably went as far as Annie Johnston’s NSU softball teammates.

Johnston, a transfer from Central Arizona, was a first-team Academic All-American, the Southland Conference Player and Hitter of the Year and one of three All-Region picks in NSU softball history.

Ahead of Saturday’s ceremony, it was her teammates who came up with a save while remaining a constant support system for NSU’s career leader in batting average (.376).

“When we first walked in, my teammates made me feel better by telling me, ‘You’re going second to last (in order of speakers),’” Johnston said. “I was relieved until everyone said their speeches. It got me more nervous to follow such incredible athletes and speeches. I was praying Andre (Carron) would do me a solid and talk 10 minutes longer.”

A speedster who played with an edge, Johnston was decidedly softer when speaking about her teammates.

“They drove two, three, four hours to come here today,” Johnston said. “They brought me a dress. Of the five things I brought to wear, I ended up wearing that one. Their kids are here. They sat through two hours of us talking about the old days – our prime – last night, and they’re sitting through two hours of this today. Get you some teammates like that.”

It wasn’t necessarily teammates that drove Jacqueline Canton Barnes to her school-record career as a jumper that included five Southland Conference titles in the triple and high jumps. Instead, the group that helped build her was much closer in proximity.

“Growing up in a family full of athletes, sports was always part of my life,” she said. “At a young age, I figured being surrounded by so much talent, I would be some type of athlete. Watching my brothers, cousins and other hometown greats, the inspiration of making a name for myself was brought to life. I knew hard work and commitment would be a part of it as I watched the ones before me go through disappointments and triumphs.”

Pushed toward Northwewstern State by her high school track and field coach – a passionate Stephen F. Austin graduate – Canton Barnes found a father-son duo who would propel her to three NCAA national championship berths in the triple and high jumps.

“(Dean Johnson) was a man of his word – he came to my small hometown and guaranteed he would do all he could to make me all I could be,” she said. “He is the smartest, goofiest, most knowledgeable jump coach there is. I give so much to him for bringing more out of me.

“To coach Leon (Johnson), thank you for always telling me to go forward, know your body and just do it. To come back to this school, when I thought this chapter was closed, to reopen the book and edit the last page with 2023 Hall of Fame inductee, my heart is full and my love will be here forever.”

Canton Barnes was not the only inductee dealing with strong emotions upon their return to campus.

Britiany Cargill Baker was immediately transported back a quarter century upon her arrival in Natchitoches. The 2000 Southland Conference Player of the Year and 2000 SLC Soccer Tournament MVP was NSU’s leading goal scorer for 22 years until her record fell after the 2022 season.

One of her first stops was the place she built much of that record.

“It feels so good to be back on campus,” said Cargill Baker, who set the goal scoring record in just three seasons. “I took my family to the field where so many of my great memories were made. As I was standing out there, I remembered driving to Northwestern State for the first time 25 years ago. I was so nervous, but it didn’t take long to feel like I was part of a family here. I credit that to my teammates, the coaching staff, the athletic director and all of the athletic staff we have here.

“The success I achieved as a player wouldn’t have been possible without my very talented teammates and devoted coaching staff. We functioned as a well-oiled machine because of them. I learned so many skills on the field – hard work, determination, teamwork and perseverance – that I apply to my life today.”

Like Cargill Baker, Angela Davidson Weathers played three seasons of basketball at Northwestern State, but hers came on the backside of her career after she chose to attend Ole Miss following a standout career at Leesville High School.

It wasn’t long before the daughter of a Northwestern State alumna realized where she should be. It didn’t hurt the Lady Demon program that Davidson Weathers became the 2001-02 Southland Conference Player of the Year, a three-time All-Southland selection and a 1,000-point scorer while earning degrees in psychology and English.

“I knew since the eighth grade I wanted to be a professional basketball player,” she said. “I chose Ole Miss because of the SEC, but that didn’t stop me from coming back full circle. When I decided I was going to leave Ole Miss, I called up James Smith and said, ‘You got room for an old girl from Leesville, Louisiana?’ He said sure.

“I was welcomed by not only such amazing teammates, but by so many people who are in this room today. Everyone embraced me, because I was back at home. When you transfer from a certain level at Division I, you have to sit out. That process could have made me quit, but the people I was surrounded by did not let me do that. Sports is a community that does that.”

The community that helped raise one of Northwestern State’s most accomplished baseball hitters started at home and extended deeper into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

“I was created by strong women,” said Brandon Morgan, who played from 2003-06 and still hold NSU’s career records for hits (259), RBIs (169) and triples (17). “I was fortunate enough to have my great-grandmother in my life until I was 16. I spent 50 to 60 percent of my time at her house. She was the rock of our family, and she was a sports fanatic. She always had sports on the TV. One thing she taught me was you go and create whatever you want to happen in life. It just takes hard work and dedication.”

And a helping hand doesn’t hurt.

For the younger Brandon Morgan, that came in the form of Dave Acton, who runs the Arlington A’s travel ball organization. A simple gesture from Acton helped lead Morgan to his four-year NSU career that left with his name scattered throughout the Demons’ all-time leaders.

“Dave’s travel team cost two thousand dollars to play,” said Morgan, who met his wife, 2007 Northwestern State Miss Lady of the Bracelet Corina Harwood, at NSU. “My family didn’t have it. He gave me an opportunity to play for free. We went all across the Southeast – Baylor, Florida State, all of those big-time programs. He gave me the keys to his indoor baseball facility and gave me hitting lessons for free. He poured into me, and I wanted to say a heartfelt thank you for that opportunity.”

Morgan wasn’t the only record holder inducted Saturday whose record remains atop the school lists.

Linebacker Andre Carron’s 521 career tackles stand as one of the school’s most untouchable marks, but those tackles nearly didn’t happen.

Carron told a story about a drill during his freshman season that nearly caused him to reconsider his football career. A trip home to Opelousas and a chat with his old position coach rectified that.

“I called him and said, ‘I don’t think this is for me,’” Carron said. “When break came, I went home and we talked about it. That got me back on track. I got stronger. I was never going to be done like that again. I started teeing off on everything that moved. Players, the other team, whoever was on the field, you were in trouble.”

And Carron’s foes heard about it – if not from him, then from his mother, whose voice could be heard from Opelousas to Natchitoches and signaled the official start of the game for the man who was nicknamed “The Terminator.”

“She’s the main reason why I’m up here,” said Carron, who was three points shy of becoming the first defensive player to win the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. “She’s been through all the battles, the trials and tribulations. The game wouldn’t start until I heard her voice yelling, ‘Come on, Dre.’ That’s when the game would start. I love you so much. I just want to show my love and show who you are – truly the best.”

Carron and Morgan were two of the inductees who spoke glowingly about the mothers and grandmothers in their lives, but one mother was able to speak about her son.

Rebecca Willis delivered a passionate response for her son Ahmad Willis, who was inducted posthumously a little more than a year after his death.

Ahmad Willis was a quiet giant of a defensive end, earning All-American honors in 2001 and a pair of All-Southland Conference honors in his career. His blocked field goal sealed the Demons’ 27-24 upset of TCU in 2001.

His powerful on-field performances stood in opposition to who Willis was off the field and the personality that remains with Rebecca Willis and her family’s memories.

“Roy Locks, I listened to him talk about Ahmad in that video,” Rebecca Willis said. “Ahmad was in his own little bubble. That’s what his family loved and adored about him. That’s the kind of guy God chose to take to Heaven early. Ahmad wasn’t about the big things. It was the small things that counted. He prepared himself to follow his dreams and goals.

“Every day the sun came up, Ahmad was positive. I can’t remember a time where he was sad. He called me three or four times a week, called his sister nearly every day. He was always helping somebody in need or playing with a child who wanted to play with him. Some people take for granted a student-athlete. What they do is more than a normal person can give.

“Today is Ahmad’s 44th birthday. Northwestern State, again, you did something great for our family. You brought him here and made a man of him. Thank you, Northwestern.”

One of Ahmad Willis’ teammates, Dr. William Broussard, typically started plays as a two-time All-American center.

Broussard, a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars College on NSU’s campus, used his acumen to defly play the pivot on NSU’s offensive line and proved to be a fine judge of character and ability as well.

“Some of you look like you can still play,” Broussard said to his fellow inductees. “Y’all are still ahead of me. I don’t think I could snap a ball or get to a three technique. I still wouldn’t block Andre Carron. Christ, he shows up in my nightmares, and I only saw tape of him. Glad he was on our side. ‘

“I did play with Ahmad Willis. I was a center and he was a defensive end. Perfect. Stay over there. They tried to move him down (to defensive tackle) my senior year. I said, ‘No, he’s good out there.’ I didn’t want to have to block him. I didn’t like lifting weights with him. I didn’t like conditioning with him. I’m dang sure not gonna block him.”

While that line drew laughs from the crowd, Broussard turned serious and made an impassioned plea to close the ceremony.

“Think about the last line of our fight song,” he said. “I’ll spare you my singing, and ask you to think about how it ends. Fight for dear old Demonland. Even though our playing days are over, how can we still fight for dear old Demonland? Time, talent and treasure.

“Everyone has time. Yes, you have obligations, but take time to reconnect with teammates. Say, ‘Hey, let’s get together and catch a game in Natchitoches.’ Reach out to the coaching staff, encourage them. Tell the administrators you support them. Talent: There are a lot of you who still coach or teach. We all play roles as educators. Share our talents that can be used in the form of storytelling. Recruit young folks looking for somewhere to play ball. Remind them this is not only an option, but it may be the option that changes their life. Finally, treasure, for those who have it, give back as much as you can. I encourage you to fight for dear old Demonland and think about what you’ve been given by this remarkable institution.”