Wednesday marked the National Signing Day for future college football players across the country, and eight Leesville football players signed their national letter of intent to make their college decisions final.
Wampus Cat head coach Robert Causey opened up the ceremony in front of the players' friends and family at the gym at Leesville High School. After a short speech, it was all about the players.
"I can't describe the feeling for these kids that are getting this opportunity," he said. "It made me think about the kids that missed it because social networking wasn't available at the times. It was so much harder, and now, with technological advancements, kids have so much more opportunity to take care of their business. We're going to be here for the kids and help them anyway we can."
Leesville went 10-2 last season and went into the playoffs with a No. 6 ranking.
Part of the recruitment process is the college coaches getting feedback and answers from the college coach, and Causey says the coaches at the next level liked what they saw.
"They talked about how hard our kids played, which is a testament to the two things you can control: your attitude and effort," he said. "That's what these kids bought into.
"It's not all based on film. They made themselves available to them because of their academics as well."
McKenzie Jackson – United States Naval Academy
McKenzie Jackson signed his letter of intent to play for Navy after high school. The defense back was a Class 4A Honorable Mention All State selection and picked off three passes his senior year, despite quarterbacks looking away from him.
"It's a big day," Jackson said. "You only get to do this once in a lifetime.
"It felt like home. It gives me a great opportunity, career wise. They treated me like I was family and would take care of me."
The corner had interest from 10 schools, but decided to take his talents to Annapolis, where the Midshipmen went 7-6 last season.
Unlike the rest of the players that signed, Jackson's contract goes beyond his tenure on the football field with five years of service after four years on the gridiron.
Jackson used his size and speed to be a threat on the both sides of the ball in his final year at Leesville.
"McKenzie was a kid that grew up a lot this last offseason," Causey said. "He could play both sides of the football. He would lock down their best receiver down, and on offense, he was a weapon with his speed. He improved as a receiver."
Andrew Croker – McNeese State University
Andrew Croker is coming off a stellar senior season and will be a preferred walk on at McNeese State University.
Croker was a Class 4A Honorable Mention All State pick as an athlete and will play safety at the next level.
"It's been special. I've had a big weight on my shoulders, but it's gone now," Croker said. "For 18 years, I wondered where I was going to play football at. All the hard work payed off. I enjoyed every second playing with brothers.
"McNeese is home. Coach Zach Bronson, the defensive backs coach, has been talking to me for years. He's my coach now, but he was like a mentor before and helped me through this process."
Croker racked up 1,647 yards on offense and subbed in on defense.
"He was the leader of the team and was a vocal guy," Causey said. "He led by example. He played with all his heart, and the team road that in the offseason. His play this last season showed that. He made me regret some decisions I made. I probably should have played him both ways more, just because of the spark he gave us."
Croker had seven offers leading up to Wednesday, making it a difficult choice.
"You have so many that want you to come play for their program, and you have to figure out which school is best for you and wants you as much as you want them," he said.
Croker joins former Wampus Cat Cory McCoy in the defensive back room at McNeese and has plans to get his body college ready.
"I'm going to put some more weight on," Croker said. "I want to get to 195 pounds and try to get my 40 time down to 4.38."
Chris Vargas – University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Coming off a Class 4A All State Honorable Mention season, Chris Vargas will take his talents to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a preferred walk on.
"It's been amazing. To know at the beginning that I had an opportunity to do this and to do this is amazing," Vargas said. "It's an amazing feeling to go out and earn it.
"I had to work my tail off to get to this moment. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings. I just knew that my hard work and dedication would pay off."
Vargas started one game as a junior and came out of nowhere to have a big senior season, which included 17 passing touchdowns and 2,109 yards through the air.
"When we came in the offseason, he just worked," Causey said. "He is a self-made man. He had a great senior year and put himself in position to go and walk on at UL-L. Whatever he needed to do, he went out and did. He never faltered. Even when we struggled offensively, he kept his cool."
With hard work not being foreign to Vargas, he is prepared to get back at it..
"My arm strength and my speed are key factors I need to work on," he said. "In college, you have to be able to play, and I know it takes a lot. It's just more hard work."
Although he had scholarship offers from other schools, the chance to play at the highest collegiate level was too much to pass up.
"It's Division I, and my dream has always been to play Division I," Vargas said. "Not many people get that opportunity."
Kobe Joiner – University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Kobe Joiner will join Vargas at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a preferred walk on in the fall semester.
"It was real fun," Joiner said about signing day. " It's fun having all the fans and coaches here. I've been looking forward to it all week. I've been texting coaches day-in and day-out to see what we had to do to come here.
"Chris and I have been best friends since day one. We decided we were going to try and go to the same college. UL-L contacted both of us and it was a big part of our decision."
Joiner caught 24 passes for 380 yards as a senior and was a first-team all-district selection.
"He's an athlete. He has decent size and his speed is good. He has great hands from playing basketball," Causey said. "We utilized him and he was a force on that side of the ball because you had to defend him in the passing game. He just took off at that position."
Although his is going to UL-L as a tight end, he may not finish at the position.
"They are going to try me out at tight end, but I'm not very big," Joiner said. "I'm around 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. They can also move me out wide to be a receiver and try to run 100 routes a game."
Gabe Ellis – Buena Vista University
Gabe Ellis is one of five seniors making the move out of Louisiana after signing with Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.
"They were the first to offer me, and it felt like home," Ellis said. "The coaching staff came down and talked to me and I felt the love."
Northwest Iowa is different than southwest Louisiana, but Ellis is excited for the change.
Ellis picked off two passes and racked up 30 total tackles in this senior year.
"He's the ringleader of the defense," Causey said. "He led my example. He was the one that made sure the guys that played basketball did the weight room in the morning for football. He held those guys accountable. He never buckled."
Ellis leaned toward a different sport early, but realized that football was his calling.
"It's a blessing. I never say myself going to the next level to play college football, because basketball was always my main sport," Ellis said. "But, come to find out, football is my main sport. It's a blessing. I can't thank any but God and the support of my friends, family and coaches.
"Nobody ever thought we could do it, but look at us."
Michael Ciacelli – Concordia University–Wisconsin
Michael Ciacelli will no longer have the option of wearing shorts in November as he signed his letter of intent to play football at Concordia University – Wisconsin in Mequon, Wisconsin.
"It was real fun getting to take pictures and see my brothers hard work pay off too," he said. "It's a surreal experience. I don't know how to describe it yet."
Ciacelli was part of the offensive line unit that paved the way for 2,099 rushing yards and 2,102 passing yards.
"He's just a gritty offensive lineman," Causey said. "He was a physical kid and understood the blocking schemes. He's not a big kid, but he had a big heart."
Ciacelli had three offers following the 2017 season and ended up choosing Concordia because the option to play different spots.
"I settled this one because the coach knew about my background at other positions and gave me the choice between o-line, d-line and linebacker," he said. "That was good enough to get me to go.
"I'm going to stay in the gym and go to the track to get some more speed."
Sabian Matuu – East Texas Baptist University
Sabian Matuu was a force at the middle of the defense and has the chance to show that at the next level after signing with East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas.
"It's been an awesome day," Matuu said. "It's been great, ad I'm exited to have this opportunity with East Texas Baptist.
"It's closer to home and a great opportunity for a chance to play."
Matuu was second on the team with 67 tackles to along with an interception.
"He's a very cerebral player. He never was misaligned," Causey said. "There were times he would read the play before it began. He's a young man with size and athleticism, and he isn't done growing yet. His prospects at the next level are big. He brings size and speed to the table."
Matuu says he is going to remember all of his experiences as a Wampus Cat with the seniors.
"Just being part of the Leesville team," Matuu said. "I'm going to remember our lows and our highs. Just all the ups and downs of being a team.
"I feel like all of us worked hard as a team. I feel like the guys that signed with me, those are the ones that put the extra effort in."
DJ Smith – Southern Arkansas University
DJ Smith is going out of state for his college career, signing with Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.
"Today has been nothing but smiles," Smith said. "It's not too far and not too close either. It felt good and felt like home."
The defensive end had five offers after his senior season and will continue to play the position SAU.
Smith had 57 tackles, seven tackles for loss and six sacks in 2017.
"He was the one that would stand out up and call them out to make sure that everyone else was with him," Smith said. "He can play any of the four positions on the defensive line. He's a high-intensity kid. Coaches raved about his motor."
With his career as a Wampus Cat wrapped up, Smith says when he thinks back on his time, he will recall the times with his teammates.
"I'll remember the hot days, cold games and having good times with the guys," he said.