Nov. 27, 2009

By Amy S. Hughes
Special to

Last week, both West Liberty and California (PA) avenged early-season losses. Saturday at noon, one of these two teams will have a little more to be thankful for as Cal U will attempt to stop one of NCAA Division II’s top offenses at Russek Field in West Liberty, W.Va.

West Liberty (11-1) boasts an explosive offense that put up 84 points and set several NCAA Tournament records against Edinboro in a regional game last week. The top-seeded Hilltoppers rank in the nation’s top-five in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and passing efficiency, but have played in just one NCAA Tournament game in program history: Last week’s win.

“[Cal U] has all the history behind them,” said West Liberty head coach Roger Waialae. “They have experience in the playoffs and we’re in uncharted waters. We’ve never been this far in the playoffs and this school has never been in the playoffs before [last week].”

But Waialae said the excitement of the Hilltoppers first postseason football game did not distract the players. West Liberty avenged its season-opening loss to Edinboro with an 84-63 victory. The teams combined for an all-time NCAA Division II single-game record 1,394 yards of total offense. West Liberty junior quarterback Zach Amedro, one of nine finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy as the NCAA Division II Player of the Year, passed for a school-record 540 yards and six touchdowns en route to the win.

The Vulcans (10-3) have playoff experience – they have been NCAA semifinalists in each of the last two years, but their path to Saturday’s quarterfinal was not as smooth as West Liberty’s. Cal U lost its final game before the post-season, falling to Shippensburg on the road in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game to open the month of November. Last week, those two teams tangled in Shippensburg once again, but a last-minute fourth-quarter stop by the Vulcan defense powered third-seeded Cal U into the quarterfinals by a 26-21 margin.

Saturday’s contest could be considered as the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. West Liberty leads the nation averaging 549.67 yards of total offense and 48.33 points per game. Cal U has held opponents to an average under 20 points per game and boasts the PSAC East Defensive Player of the Year in senior defensive lineman Willie Walker and PSAC West Freshman of the Year in defensive back Rontez Miles.

“They have great skill guys,” said Cal U head coach John Luckhardt. “That’s one of the reasons they put 84 on the board last week and 64 the week before that. I don’t think you stop them. If we can slow them down a little bit, cause a turnover here and there and (then) our offense is going to have to answer the call for us to stay in the game.”

Each program handled the Thanksgiving week in a different manner.

West Liberty used its first-round tournament bye week as an early Thanksgiving holiday, while Cal U released its players for the remainder of the holiday following a Thursday morning practice. The team has a holiday dinner together after practice.

 “I let them go home on the bye week and some families did have their Thanksgiving dinner at that time on the chance that we’d be playing,” Waialae said. “The kids understand. Nobody complained. They’re happy to still be playing football.”

Meanwhile, the Vulcans have been going for 17 consecutive weeks and will be able to spend at least part of the holiday away from football.

“In fairness to these kids, they can’t wait to get away from us, particularly me. I think they deserve at least a 24-hour holiday,” said Luckhardt on Tuesday. His players also had a Thanksgiving morning practice, but were released from team obligations until Friday afternoon.

As for trying to stop the high-powered Hilltopper offense, Luckhardt is not afraid of a shootout.

“I think we’ve got a good team mentality in that regard,” he said. “We’re going against one of the best offenses in the country at this stage and we know they’re going to have success. We can’t get down just because they have success. We just have to keep going.”