Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 16, 2013

SALISBURY — Saturday afternoon’s 1:30 p.m. home game with Lenoir-Rhyne will be Catawba’s final football game this fall, but coach Curtis Walker winced on Tuesday every time someone mentioned that it was the last game, the last week or the last Arby’s-sponsored press conference.
The last few months haven’t been a grind for Walker. This rebuilding process has been a lot of work for him, but it’s also been enjoyable, and Catawba (6-4, 3-3 SAC), playing a host of freshmen, has secured a winning season after two bad ones.
Walker sounded on Tuesday a lot like basketball coach Norman Dale did in “Hoosiers” when his Indiana high school boys had just started to get it and were starting to fire on all cylinders.
“I do hate to see this season coming to an end because we’re playing at a higher level a lot more frequently than we were earlier,” Walker said. “We’re getting closer to where we need to be. We’re playing our best football right now.”
Catawba has an opportunity Saturday, and the coaches and players are well aware of it. Catawba has nothing to lose in its matchup with Lenoir-Rhyne (9-1), a great team, winner of nine straight, conference champions once again, ranked 14th nationally and first in the region, and a band of Bears who could fare very well in the D-II playoffs.
“Lenoir-Rhyne is a great football team that can hold the ball on offense and shut you down on defense,” Walker said. “We’re a team that had a three-game losing streak, but we are a good football team at this point, and we really want to finish the season strong. Saturday’s game is a measuring stick for us against the best in our league.”
Most successful teams have a foundation of being able to run the ball offensively and being able to stop the run defensively, and Lenoir-Rhyne fits that description to the letter.
The Bears rank second nationally in rushing yards per game (370) and they are eighth nationally at stopping the run, allowing just 88 yards per game.
“Their defensive scheme is very good and they have good players,” Walker said. “They have key players who have been together a long time and their defense plays as one.”
The numbers agree with Walker that while Catawba isn’t great, it’s pretty good. The Indians are in the top quarter of Division II teams defensively and comfortably in the top half offensively. Obviously, both Catawba units face stiff tests Saturday, and the status of Catawba quarterback Danny O’Brien has been uncertain.
O’Brien was hurt (hand) last Saturday at North Greenville, and while Mike Sheehan was downright heroic as his replacement, O’Brien has been the leader of Catawba’s offense. He’s really been good, not just because he’s passed often and accurately but because the Division I transfer has blended into a D-II team like he was just another guy. He’s been special without acting like he’s anything special, if that makes any sense.
Two guys to watch for on the Lenoir-Rhyne squad are No. 37 Ike Whitaker, because the hard-running fullback (629 yards, eight TDs) is a product of Salisbury High, and No. 8 Michael Green because the safety/punt returner has seven picks and might be the SAC’s best player.
In a turnaround season, Catawba has gotten a lot of leadership from a very small senior class. Safety/vocal leader L.J. McCray and receiver Nate Charest have been memorable players.
“I’ve challenged our entire team to play this game to honor all our great seniors,” Walker said. “They’ve been outstanding in leading us to a winning season.”
Lenoir-Rhyne has beaten Catawba four straight times, the last two by lopsided margins.
For Catawba’s first season under Walker, six wins has been good but seven would be better. The task is huge. The challenge is great. But the opportunity is there for a team that was picked seventh in the SAC in the preseason.