Unbeaten Lenoir-Rhyne reaches final eight of Division II football tournament

Defensive end Jaquan Artis and Lenoir-Rhyne are a perfect 13-0 heading into Saturday’s NCAA Division II regional final against No. 20 West Florida. (Photo courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne)

The Lenoir-Rhyne football team has already tied a school record with 13 wins this season, won a conference championship and advanced to a regional final in the NCAA Division II national playoffs.

But coach Drew Cronic isn’t ready to start patting anybody on the back just yet.

As successful a season as his undefeated Bears have enjoyed, there’s still work to do, and the hump that stands before them — an NCAA Division II region final date on Saturday — is the one they were unable to get over last year in their hunt for the first national championship in school history.

“We’re 25-2 in those two years. We won two playoff games last year and now we’ve won two playoff games this year, so we’ve got a little bit of playoff experience,” said Cronic, whose second-seeded team will take on unseeded West Florida in Hickory at 1 p.m. “If we win this one, this will be the next step. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Last year’s region final loss to eventual national champion Valdosta State aside, Lenoir-Rhyne has a lot going for it against the 2017 national runner-up Argonauts.

Not only are the Bears undefeated, but they have yet to lose at home in Cronic’s two seasons as their coach. They also enter Saturday’s game with momentum, coming off an impressive 49-21 second-round playoff win against South Atlantic Conference rival Carson-Newman last week.

In West Florida, however, they’re playing a team that has already won two road playoff games, including a come-from-behind upset of Valdosta State in which it scored the winning touchdown with six seconds remaining.

“It’s kind of an interesting matchup,” Cronic said. “They’ve been outstanding on the road and we’ve been really outstanding at home, so one of those streaks is going to come to an end.”

West Florida (10-2) is in only its fourth season as a program after being started in 2016 by former UNC Pembroke coach Pete Shinnick. But despite that lack of history, the Argos have already built an impressive resume — advancing to the national championship game in 2017 before losing to Texas A&M-Commerce.

Lenoir-Rhyne also has a recent championship game appearance, having made it to the Division II final in 2013, where it lost to Northwest Missouri State.

The Bears went 11-1 the following year but fell on hard times after that. They won only six games combined in the two seasons before Cronic took over in 2018, meaning that the juniors and seniors on the roster experienced an extreme low before the high that they’re now enjoying.

It’s a memory that, according to Cronic, keeps his team both grounded and motivated.

“It’s a great group of kids that’s done everything I’ve asked of them. And I’ve asked a lot,” the coach said. “It’s been a long season. It’s a grind, so we’ve tried to back off in practice some because it’s been a lot of football that they’ve played.

“But I think that they’re excited about the opportunity. Our kids have been playing hard and playing well. It’s an overachieving team. Our kids will go out there and play hard, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t do that (Saturday).”

The Bears (13-0) feature an offense Cronic described as a combination of the old Delaware Wing-T and Oregon’s up-tempo attack because of the fast-paced style that revolves heavily around the running game.

The team averages 268 yards on the ground and 42.3 points per game behind the talents of three backs that have gained better than 400 yards apiece this season — Ameen Stevens (810 yards, 17 TDs), Jaquay Mitchell (634 yards, 3 TDs) and Jace Jordan (481 yards, 4 TD).

Defensively, Lenoir-Rhyne is allowing opponents just 80.9 rushing yards and 15.5 points per game, led by All-American defensive end Jaquan Artis. Safety Kyle Dugger was also named an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association despite being sidelined for the past five games with a hand injury.

Despite Dugger’s absence, Cronic said that his secondary has risen to the occasion — as has everyone on his roster.

“All these guys have made unbelievable contributions to this game. Our whole football team,” he said. “We really have a team that cares about each other, that’s done everything we’ve asked them to do. I just want to see them continue to expect big things to happen and be the very best they can be. If we do that and we lose, I can live with it. I’m blessed to get to coach these guys.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to the national semifinals at a campus site once the remaining teams are reseeded. The championship game will be played on Dec. 21 in McKinney, Texas.