Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 21, 2013

FLORENCE, Ala. — Every college team enters a season with dreams of a national championship.
For the Lenoir-Rhyne football team, it’s no longer a dream.
“The dream has become an opportunity,” L-R fullback Ike Whitaker said on the eve of today’s Division II championship game at Braly Field in Florence, Ala. “We have to embrace that opportunity.”
Nervousness is part of it when you get to this point, but Whitaker, who was a standout at Salisbury High, is more anxious than nervous about facing perennial power Northwest Missouri (14-0).
“We talked about it all year, but I don’t know that it really hit us until we got down here to Alabama that we were playing for a national championship,” Whitaker said. “We’re not in Hickory any more, and we’re playing on a big stage against a very tough opponent. Still, at the end of the day, it’s just another football game. We’ve got to go out and do what we do.”
The Bears (13-1) do what they do very well. The general perception is that the run-run-run Bears play antique football, but while they are certainly a “triple-option” team, they run the option out of the flexbone spread. They do the sort of things that they do at Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Navy.
“Anyone who thinks what we do offensively is simple probably should be a defensive coordinator,” L-R coach Mike Houston said with a laugh after the Bears hammered Catawba in their regular-season finale. “We’ve got a great staff that spends a lot of hours scheming.”
Whitaker, who made the All-SAC second team, agrees.
“There are things we do that aren’t much different than what Coach (Joe) Pinyan had us doing at Salisbury, and that helped me some when I first got up here,” Whitaker said. “But our offense really isn’t simple at all. If it was simple, a lot more defenses would be stopping us.”
It’s remarkable that L-R has lost two quarterbacks along the way. The starter went down in the Carson-Newman game in the regular season. The backup was hurt in the second-round playoff rematch with Carson-Newman. Josh Justice is now the starter, although he’s no ordinary third-stringer. He directed South Point’s triple-option attack to a 3A state title in high school, and he’s performed heroically the last two weeks.
“We’ve got depth, and we had a lot of confidence in Josh when he stepped in,” Whitaker said. “I can’t tell you how proud we are of how he’s played. Josh came in with me four years ago. We’re like graduate students in the triple option.”
The Bears have won two close playoff games, including a 42-39 with North Alabama. In last week’s semifinal in Hickory, Lenoir-Rhyne rolled West Chester 42-14. Brutal elements provided the challenge.
“The playing conditions were indescribable,” Whitaker said. “I’d never played in anything like that. We played in a monsoon. It was crazy, it was wet, it was muddy, and there was no grass on the field. At halftime, we all went in and changed our socks and shoes, It did no good. After two plays in the second half, it was like we’d never changed.”
Whitaker rushed for 90 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns. L-R didn’t throw a single pass.
“Our coaching staff preaches mental toughness,” Whitaker said. “That game was a test of how tough we can be, and we thrived in terrible conditions. I knew with the way the weather was, it was going to be a fullback’s game, and our three fullbacks collectively were named the award-winners for the game.”
Whitaker, the “dive man” in the triple option, has 908 yards on 204 carries this season. He’s scored 10 TDs. He’s always the spearhead for L-R’s offense, which attacks inside first, and then goes outside.
It will be a lively confrontation today, with second-ranked Northwest Missouri, Division II’s most efficient passing offense, against the 13th-ranked Bears, Division II’s most prolific rushing offense.
Whitaker has a lot of faith in a tremendous Lenoir-Rhyne defense to limit Northwest Missouri.
“We practice against those guys, and they are fast and physical and they will hit,” Whitaker said. “They have our back, and we have theirs.”
No South Atlantic Conference team has ever won the D-II national championship, so the Bears are playing for that too. Carson-Newman made it to the title game three times. Twice it lost to Northwest Missouri.
In the glory days of the Bears — they were 76-6-4 from 1955-1962 — they got significant contributions from a stream of Rowan players. Boyden’s Jim Edmiston, who died last February, made All-America for the Bears, and so did Landis’ Howard Barnhardt. Both are in the L-R Sports Hall of Fame.
In the early 1990s, North Rowan’s Shannon Myers starred for the Bears in baseball and football on his way to the SAC and L-R Hall of Fames, and there are almost always Rowan players on the Bears’ roster.
Whitaker is the key local connection now, but former Salisbury tight end Ben Ritchie is a redshirt this season. Former Davie baseball and football standout Zach Long plays on special teams for the Bears, and former A.L. Brown linebacker Andrew Leslie is a backup defensive lineman.
There are also local cheerleaders for the Bears, including West Rowan graduate Ali Miller and South Rowan grads Anna Overcash and Tyler Lefler.
The game will be broadcast live at noon on ESPN2. Whitaker will be ready.
“We know Northwest Missouri has played well against option teams,” he said. “But we can’t worry too much about what they’re going to try do. It all comes down to whether we can execute our offense or not, and the plan is to execute.”