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  • Associated Press St. Francis running back Jason Nicodemus (34) breaks free from Baker defensive back Hayden Jenkins, left, for a 45-yard run during the first half of the NAIA championship football game in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Saturday, December 17, 2016 9:43 pm

Cougar seniors have moment to remember

Greg Jones | The Journal Gazette

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Saint Francis senior Jason Nicodemus missed last season with a torn Achilles tendon. The rehabilitation wasn’t easy, but the motivation was a quest for a national championship, which was fulfilled with a 38-17 win over Baker (Kansas) in the NAIA national title game Saturday at Municipal Stadium.

“I spent a long time recovering from that, and everything I had in my mind was about this game,” Nicodemus said. “Those long days in the gym throughout the recovery process, I was thinking about this game. This is absolutely how I would want to go out. This makes it just that more special after a rough last season.”

Nicodemus was an early spark for the Cougars (13-1) when he ran for 45 yards from the Baker 47 on a fourth down play in the first quarter. It set up an eventual 5-yard scoring toss from Nick Ferrer to Seth Coate to give the Cougars a 7-3 advantage.

“The line did a great job and opened up a lane for me to squeeze through,” Nicodemus said. “Maybe if I was a little younger, I would have made it all the way (to the end zone).”

Coate, also a senior, will be missed after catching nine passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats (14-1).

“I don’t know, we are going to have to find some guys,” Ferrer said of replacing Coate. “We are going to lose him, Montay (McDowell) and Akeim (Kelsaw).

“It is going to be tough, but we are going to work hard in the offseason, but obviously right now we are going to enjoy this one. But it has been a pleasure to play with him, and I know for sure he is going to get some looks at the next level.”

Kelsaw, like Nicodemus, missed last season with an injury.

Coate set two NAIA records with 25 touchdown catches this season and at least a touchdown catch in 27 straight games.

Coate was named the Offensive Player of the Game.

“Going out on a win does not upset me at all,” Coate said.

Another key senior, defensive end Lucas Sparks, was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

“I am glad I ended it that way,” Sparks said of a title. “It was a heckuva a way to end a senior season.”

Senior defensive back Jerrell Holman endured his fair share of ups and downs with the program, but the Cougars’ first national championship made it all worth it. Saint Francis was the NAIA national runner-up three straight seasons in 2004-06.

“I was that close to getting kicked out of school; I was that close to not playing football at all,” Holman said. “After two ACL surgeries, I dislocated something with my ankle last year. I just kept pushing and kept fighting. That’s what we teach with Cougar football is keeping fighting no matter what the circumstance is, and you will come out on top.

“(The championship) made it all well worth it.”

Holman had nine tackles as the Cougars held the Wildcats 32 points under their season average.

gjones@jg.net