After staying in the playoff hunt in both the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Christian College Athletic Association into the second half of the 2011 season, the hunger to finish strong inspires returning SAGU football players.

SAGU finished the season at 4-6 and thanks to the tutelage of veteran head coach and athletic director Jesse Godding, they equaled their best-yet win total from the 2008 campaign.

After receiving votes in the weekly NAIA Top 25 Coaches Poll when they started the season at 3-1, SAGU remained alive in the Central States Football League into the final weeks of the season.

The team’s final record was very deceiving. They either led or were within a touchdown in most every game. A couple of heartbreaking setbacks spoiled what would’ve been the program’s first postseason berth.

Had they finished better, they had a chance in the CSFL as well as a shot in the NCCAA’s Victory Bowl.

“The taste (from the season) is very bitter,” said halfback Cade Leuschner. “We have several ‘only if’ and ‘what if’s’ eating at us about what we or I could have done. But it provokes you to do something about it. If we tweak a few things and do a few things differently, I believe we will have different and positive results in 2012.”

Leuschner averaged a team-best 5.8 yards per carry during a freshman season that saw him pick up 307 yards, which was fourth on the team. It did rank him No. 9 in the CSFL.

Quarterbacks Reid Golson and Jason Rice rushed for 491 and 414 yards respectively, while junior running back Sean Haynes racked up 350 on the ground and another 155 on 18 receptions.

Haynes has similar confidence in next year’s team. He also battles the unfulfillment of dropping five games in a row.

“Coming up short of what we were capable of really stings,” Haynes said.

The elusive, speedster explained that the 2011 team was relatively young in key areas.

“We lacked the experience to finish in big games,” Haynes admitted. “The growing pains are behind us and we have turned the page. I believe we will hit the field with the same fire and determination that we’ve always had - but we will finish, and finish strong.”

The CSFL champion, Southern Nazarene University, is moving the NCAA’s Division II. But Northwestern Oklahoma State and Langston remain as heavyweights.

“We know we can play with all the “big dogs” in the conference because we have had many of them on the ropes and then let them slip away,” quipped Haynes. “We trust Coach Godding and our coaching staff. We will continue to work with them and buy-in to the program to get better as a unit. We have strengths on both sides of the ball. In order to reach our first goal and win our first conference championship, we will have to maintain discipline and stay in sync for the entirety of the season.”

Defensive end Isaac Caston, a junior who missed this season following foot surgery, hopes the defensive squad makes more takeaways in 2012.

“I believe we will be turnover tyrants, Caston said. “I’m hoping we lead the conference in forcing turnovers. I’m not sure what defensive scheme we’ll employ, but we have a number of versatile athletes who can play numerous positions.”

Replacing perennial All-Conference nose tackle Jon Hulett will be critical.

“Hopefully we will bring in another force in the middle,” Caston said. “Overall, I think we’ll have plenty of young, hungry guys on defense. Our secondary will bring continuity and experience. I expect a rapid improvement from them.”

Acknowledging the Lions will have voids to fill, created by departing seniors, junior linebacker Nate Kallal said it shouldn’t change the way the defense plays.

“We will be ready to stop the run and we will fly around to the ball,” Kallal said. “We have a lot of work to do in order to mesh as a unit but with what we have already in place I believe this unit can be a great defense.”

Caston had 30 tackles, six for losses, as a sophomore. He pointed out players that he believes will trigger the defensive turnaround: linemen Richard Adewola and Therian Lewis, linebacker Rockie Davis and defensive backs Brad Heathcock and Nick Ekanem.

Ekanem could be a key catalyst. An NAIA All-American as a freshman, he has since struggled through two injury-laden seasons. Like the others, a buoyant Ekanem is optimistic about a defensive bounce-back.

“We must finish everything we do,” Ekanem said, “Whether it’s in the weight room or finishing sets or sprints or tackles. By finishing every game we can do what SAGU has never done in school history: win the conference.”