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College Football: Indians are left out

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Catawba’s football team won against Lenoir-Rhyne on Saturday, the fourth straight victory for the Indians, and while there was no blaring of horns, no beating of drums and no conga lines, there were smiles all around at Shuford Stadium.

A fan yelled at All-America linebacker Kyle Kitchens that it was “on to the national championship now,” and Kitchens grinned widely in response and fist-punched the air with the joy that only Senior Day success and a 9-2 season can bring.

Even head coach Curtis Walker, serious 98 percent of the time, allowed himself a deep breath and a smile of relief. There didn’t appear any doubt Catawba’s season would continue, that Walker and his staff would be preparing Kitchens and his teammates this week for a first-round game in the Division II playoffs.

The only note of caution in a sea of  happiness was interjected by AD Larry Leckonby. “Let’s don’t count our chickens yet,” Leckonby said quietly.

Leckonby was at least a little concerned. South Atlantic Conference champion Wingate, undefeated all season, ranked No. 1 in the region, and one of the teams that beat Catawba, had inexplicably lost to Tusculum, a team Catawba had thoroughly destroyed on the road.

“Wingate losing, that hurts our strength of schedule,” Leckonby said.

There would be another result on Saturday down in Carrolton, Ga., that would hold dire complications for Catawba. West Florida, ranked 10th in the region, upset West Georgia, which was ranked fourth. Last season, West Georgia beat West Florida, 69-0.  Pete Shinnick who got the UNC Pembroke program started a while back, has worked wonders with West Florida’s program, which is only in its second season of competition.

Delta State, ranked right behind Catawba, won its game on Saturday. Virginia State stayed undefeated by easily winning the CIAA championship game against Fayetteville State. West Alabama, ranked second in the region, won a close one against North Greenville, a good team that Catawba also beat. Bowie State, a CIAA team ranked one spot ahead of Catawba, didn’t play on Saturday.

The first rankings for Super 2 Region (that’s a region made up of the SAC, CIAA, SIAC and Gulf South conferences) were issued in late October. Catawba was pleasantly surprised to find itself seventh in those rankings, even after setbacks against Wingate (at home in a game Catawba really should’ve won) and at Carson-Newman. Seven teams from the region would make the playoffs, so Catawba took the approach that it was playing a playoff game each of its last three regular-season games. Catawba won against Limestone and won against Newberry, inching up to No. 6 in the region. Then Catawba took care of Lenoir-Rhyne. The Newberry and Lenoir-Rhyne games were struggles, but they were wins, nonetheless. Catawba players, coaches and fans believed they’d done what they needed to do.

When the Indians went to bed on Saturday night, the regional rankings looked like this:

  1. Wingate, 2. West Alabama, 3. Virginia State, 4. West Georgia, 5. Bowie State, 6.Catawba, 7. Delta State. 8. Carson-Newman, 9. Tuskegee, 10. West Florida.
  2. The regional committee met on Sunday morning, and the following playoff seeds were announced on Sunday evening.
    1. West Alabama, 2. Virginia State, 3. Wingate, 4. Bowie State, 5. Delta State, 6. West Florida, 7. West Georgia

There was silence on the Catawba campus on Sunday evening, disappointment mixing with disbelief.

Four of the seven teams chosen to represent a four-conference region are from the Gulf South Conference. That doesn’t seem very balanced, not when Catawba and/or Carson-Newman had solid cases for inclusion. Catawba’s win at FCS school VMI carried zero weight, wasn’t a factor at all, because VMI isn’t a Division II team. Still, Catawba had just two defeats, while three Gulf South teams made the party with three setbacks apiece. SIAC champ Tuskegee also had only two losses, although one of them was 61-0.

It will take a while for the sting of Saturday’s snub to depart, but whenever a committee meets behind closed doors, there’s always a chance something that appears unfair can take place.

Back in 2003, Catawba was 9-2 (one loss was to FCS powerhouse Wofford) and was somehow left out of the dance, but there were fewer teams in the playoffs then.

In 2004, Catawba didn’t have nearly as strong a case for the playoffs with a 7-3 record —but did get in.

So maybe the committee owes the Indians one. We’ll see what happens next year.

 

 

#1 West Alabama

#2 Virginia State vs #7 West Georgia

#3 Wingate vs #6 West Florida

#4 Bowie State vs #5 Delta State (winner plays #1 West Alabama)

 

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