Paul Winters didn’t even bother paying attention to the selection announcement.
“We didn’t feel real confident,” the eighth-year Wayne State (Mich.) head football coach admitted.
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Been there, done that.
“We didn’t get together as a team. We had missed the playoffs last year at 9-2 and we were the [Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference South Division] champs, so at 8-3 we just figured that unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
So when Wayne State was, in fact, was matched up against St. Cloud State in the first round of the Division II playoffs, Winters had to be told by his athletic director, Rob Fournier
“I was at home,” Winters said. “I didn’t watch it. I was kind of reserved. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, okay. Let’s get ready.’ ”
Indeed they did. Wayne State, now 11-3, beat St. Cloud 48-38, defeated Nebraska-Kearney 38-26, and then last Saturday got past defending-national-champion Minnesota-Duluth 31-25.
Now, the Warriors head to Winston-Salem State for a Saturday semifinal matchup, a victory away from the national championship game against the winner of the other semifinal between Delta State and Pittsburg State. Wayne State even has a fan bus that left Friday morning to make the 600-mile trip.
It marks quite a turnaround for a program that was at rock bottom when Winters took over. Wayne State hadn’t had a winning season on the field since 1993 — in 1994 it finished above .500 courtesy of a victory by forfeit — and in Winters’ first season in 2004, the team went 1-9. The Warriors finished 3-7 in 2005, but then began the ascent for the former assistant coach at Akron and Wisconsin.
In 2006, the Warriors were 6-5. The next year, they took a step back to 3-8, but in 2008, they were 8-3 and had a 6-5 season in 2009. That season included a remarkable year for senior running back Joique Bell, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy signifying the NCAA Division II Player of the Year.
This year’s team, which averages 33.3 points per game has a pretty good running attack of its own. Toney Davis, a sophomore running back, has gained 1,340 yards and run for 20 touchdowns. And that includes a whopping 326-yard, five-touchdown performance in the victory against St. Cloud.
Senior Josh Renel has rushed for 1,298 yards and 14 TDs, has caught 22 passes and averaged 12.8 yards per punt returns and 22.2 yards per kickoff return.
Senior safety Jeremy Jones has nine interceptions, one returned for a TD, and six other Warriors have combined for 15 more INTs.
“I thought we were a good football team,” Winters said. “Actually, I thought we were a good football team that had blown a chance to show that we were a good football team.”
That’s because the Warriors, once cruising along at 6-0, got hit hard by injuries on defense. They lost at Ashland 20-17, had to go to double overtime to beat Hillsdale 27-24, lost to Saginaw Valley State 28-20, bounced back to top Indianapolis 28-19, but then fell to Findlay 43-42 in overtime, which ensured that Winters wasn’t going to sit on the edge of his season for the DII bracket announcement.
“We lost four starters on defense at one point and, well, I wouldn’t say were struggling, but we lost a couple of close games and just weren’t as effective as we had been,” Winters said. “And then I think we got three of them back when we started the playoffs and started playing the kind of defense we were used to.”
Winters said NFL scouts have checked out a handful of Warriors, especially Jones, an All-American as a junior and defensive player of the year in the conference this season.
“He’s a great player for us,” Winters said.
The quarterback is junior Mickey Mohner who has completed 166 of 296 passes (56 percent) for 2,584 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’s only been intercepted six times. In the quarterfinal victory against Duluth, he completed 15 of 21 passes for 190 yards and two scores.
“Really strong arm, quick release, intelligent, puts in the right place,” Winters said of Mohner.
Joe Long, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jake Long, and Mohner are the captains of a team that has played a tough schedule, been through the tough times and finds itself a victory away from the big game.
“Part of our success right now is we had some really tough road games,” Winters said.
It’s not enough to make the rest of the state forget about Michigan, Michigan State and the like, but it’s been a heck of a run.
“When it’s all said and done we’ll look back and say we did some things that were never done here before and we’re very proud of it, but we’re just really trying to win this game and then go to the next one.”
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