Florida Tech Opening Eyes in Third Season

For four years, many of the Florida Tech players have worked hard to build a solid foundation for a new football program. They are now on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Division II playoffs.

But it is a daunting task for the Panthers, who travel to Valdosta State to take on the No. 18 Blazers on Saturday.

It is a wonderful story that will be told at 3 p.m. ET by ESPN3 broadcasters and the players on the field as Florida Tech and Valdosta State will battle for at least a share of the Gulf South Conference title and a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Valdosta State, 7-2 overall and 4-2 in conference, has been in this position before. The program is accustomed to reaching the playoffs and winning. The Blazers won national titles in 2004, 2007 and 2012.

It is a brand new world for Florida Tech, which is just in its third season of competition. The Panthers improved their record to 7-3 overall and 5-1 for a three-way tie for first with West Georgia and North Alabama after a monumental 28-26 win at home last week against No. 1 ranked West Georgia.

“We knew it was a must-win game to try to get to the postseason, said sophomore quarterback Mark Cato, who threw two touchdown passes against West Georgia.  “We went out and did what we had to do. It was a great feeling afterwards.

“But we are not going to allow last week to linger over our heads. We are going to go out and keep playing football.”

The victory vaulted the Panthers into playoff contention. They are currently ranked sixth in Super Region Two and Valdosta is seventh in region and only the top seven teams in each region advance to the playoffs.

“Every game has been a must-win,” Cato said. “Each game was bigger and bigger. The stakes are high this week. We have to go out there and put it all out on the field.”

After a 1-3 start, Florida Tech has been playing playoff-type games since Oct. 3, when the Panthers traveled to then-No. 5 Delta State and pulled out a 41-37 victory.

“The three losses were losses we had the opportunity to win,” Florida Tech coach Steve Englehart said. “In a way, we had some bad luck, and we didn’t play well at certain times. If we could get our team to focus in and execute, we thought we could string together a few wins. We have been fortunate enough to string together six wins in a row and hopefully make it seven this weekend.”

The family atmosphere and starting something new and being able to put their stamp on the program bonded the Panthers and enabled them to overcome a 31-28 loss in the season opener to Newberry, a 28-17 loss to Southeastern Louisiana, a FCS team, in week two and a 55-48 loss at North Alabama in week four.

“To be a great team, you have to be a family, a brotherhood,” Cato said. “The school atmosphere, the coaches, they are all behind us. It is just a great feeling.”

Starting from scratch has some advantages, said Englehart.

“First off, you have a group of young men who came in here in the first two years who have all worked together for quite some time to get to this point,” he said. “You don’t have a handful seniors, a handful of juniors. We have a bunch of juniors and some seniors who came in here trying to start the program together as freshmen and sophomores.

“A lot of teams, guys aren’t together a period of time as our guys have been together. Our guys have been together for three and four years and they worked hard.”

To an outsider, Florida Tech’s game against Valdosta State appears to be a high-pressure task for the Panthers. After all, it is the biggest game in the program’s history.

But Florida Tech just played a game last week that was important on many levels.

“We knew our backs were against the wall,” Englehart said. “Our kids are used to that. Obviously, last week was a big game because there were a lot of other things going on around the game. It was our Homecoming, senior day and playing the No. 1 team in the country.

“Overall, our kids are pretty focused. They know this is one game. We worked all year for one opportunity to make the playoffs and win a conference championship. It is one game for all the marbles. I think our kids will be focused.”

One thing that has helped the Panthers is each year a realistic goal was set. In the first year, the Panthers wanted to learn how to compete and win a few games at home. The second year they wanted to win on the road and they accomplished that by winning at West Alabama and beat Tarleton at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

“In our third year, we thought we could compete for a conference championship,” Englehart said. “We didn’t know if we could win a conference championship, but we thought we could compete near the top of standings in the Gulf South Conference.

“In our fourth season, our expectation is to try to make a run in the playoffs. We set those goals four years ago when we started the program. It is good to know your target. Our staff and players have done a great job of embracing the process.”

Cato said it is awesome to be part of the first group of players to play football at Florida Tech.

“It is a once in a lifetime chance,” Cato said. “Not many people get to be at the start of a program, especially the start of a great, special program. In three short years, we are making a lot of noise in Division II.”

Series history: Valdosta State leads 2-0

Last meeting: Valdosta State won 31-29 at Florida Tech on Nov. 15, 2014

Total offense: Florida Tech, 433.5; Valdosta State, 407.9

Total defense: Florida Tech, 342.7; Valdosta State, 354.7

Points scored: Florida Tech, 31.6; Valdosta State, 34.9

Points allowed: Florida Tech, 23.5; Valdosta State, 23.6

Lone Star Conference Showdown

When No. 10 Midwestern State, 9-1, travels to No. 11 Texas A&M-Commerce, 8-2, for Saturday’s Lone Star Conference Playoff Championship game that will be televised at 2:30 p.m. CT on American Sports Network, the two teams are basically playing for pride and to get ready for the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Regardless of the outcome, it appears the two teams have already locked up a spot. Commerce is third in Super Region Four and Midwestern State is fourth. The top seven teams advance to the playoffs.

Midwestern State, though, has a little more incentive to win on Saturday. Commerce beat Midwestern State 27-14 at Commerce on Oct. 24. Commerce finished one game ahead of Midwestern State in the Lone Star regular season standings, going 6-0.