By Matt Leon
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The dream of a national championship is still alive for the West Chester University football team.
The Golden Rams have advanced to the national semifinals of the NCAA Division II Championship Tournament. On Saturday, they will visit Lenoir-Rhyne University down in Hickory, North Carolina.
The latest in the growing list of impressive playoff wins for this team came last week. They traveled down to West Virginia and smothered the top seed in their region, Shepherd University, 28-7.
“We played really great defense,” West Chester head coach Bill Zwaan told KYW Newsradio prior to Wednesday night’s practice at the Eagles’ practice facility in South Philadelphia. “A couple of our defensive kids made big plays. Everybody’s been making big plays through the playoffs. They were a very good football team, we knew it was going to be a big challenge and our guys stepped up. We were ready to play right from the get go, we pretty much stayed ahead the whole time and put it away in the end. So now we’re in the final four which is pretty amazing. Our kids are really excited about it.”
The Golden Rams are now 13-1 on the season and the 13 wins are already a school record. For veterans like junior linebacker Ronell Williams, this is quite a ride.
“It’s amazing,” Williams tells KYW Newsradio. “Not so much just individually, but just doing it with this great group of guys, doing it with my teammates.”
Williams has had an outstanding career leading the West Chester defense. On offense, West Chester has stars like senior running back Rondell White and junior quarterback Sean McCartney. All of them have had outstanding postseasons, but they have gotten a lot of help from a growing cast of players stepping up in big moments.
“It is different guys making plays,” Zwaan says. “And young guys. (Redshirt freshman defensive back) Blaise Schieler played really well for us last week. (Sophomore defensive back) Brandon Pepper’s been making interceptions week after week. (Junior defensive back) Al-Hajj Shabazz making a big play. (Senior wide receiver) LaRonn Lee stepped up last week for us. So each week it’s been a different guy. I think when you get to this level, good teams will take away some of your good stuff, that’s what you expect would happen. So some of the other guys have to step up in order to keep moving and that’s what’s been happening for us.”
Pepper specifically has had an incredible postseason, the Pennsbury High School product has intercepted four passes in the Golden Rams three postseason games, including one he returned for a score to seal the win against Shepherd.
Lenoir-Rhyne is 12-1 this season. Last week they beat North Alabama (coached by former Temple head man Bobby Wallace), 42-39, in the quarterfinals.
“They are a triple option team and they are really good at it,” Zwaan says. “So from a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to be real disciplined. We’ve got to be able to tackle. Their quarterback runs the ball really well, their fullback, it’s going to be tough to shut them down, but we need to slow them down and kind of do a ‘bend-don’t-break’ type thing. We’re going to give up some yardage, but try to not give up big plays.”
The triple-option can be a difficult offense to prepare for on short notice, but the Golden Rams have experience defending it. PSAC foe Cheyney University has utilized the attack the last few years.
“Cheyney helps,” Zwaan says. “Clarion, at the end of the year, even though they weren’t a true triple-option, they were zone-read option, and they did some triple schemes. And then against AIC (in the first round of the playoffs), their quarterback was really their best runner. So we’ve played a couple teams who rely on the quarterback run and rely on reading the defenses in the last couple weeks. So some of that’s going to help us, it’s not going to be completely the same, but certainly some of it is going to help us.”
“It comes down to assignment ball,” Williams says. “We know on the defense, it’s just do your 1/11th. As long as we stay true to what we do, we’ll be fine.”
Postseason runs like this don’t come around that often. West Chester has gotten this far just once before in program history, back in 2004. Zwaan wants his players to realize how special this is, but at the same time, remember there is still work to do.
“I want them to enjoy it,” Zwaan says. “I want it to be special. But I also want them to know . . and they know, they know where they’re at. They know what they have the opportunity to do and they want it to happen. But I want them to feel good about it as we’re doing it.”
The winner of this game will face the winner of Northwest Missouri State and Grand Valley State for the national championship on December 21st.
West Chester and Lenoir-Rhyne will kick-off at noon on Saturday.
You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattleonkyw.