Dec. 5, 2009

By John Raffel
Special to

ALLENDALE, Mich. — All eyes were focused on Grand Valley senior running back P.T. Gates when the Lakers stepped onto their home field Saturday at Lubbers Stadium for the NCAA Division II semifinal showdown against Carson-Newman.

And Gates wasn't about to let his teammates down.

With Grand Valley's No. 1 running back and career leader Jimmy Berezik out of the lineup, Gates had a career day with 183 yards rushing on 28 carries for two touchdowns to lead  the No. 3-ranked Lakers past the No. 10 Eagles 41-27 and claim a berth in next week's national title game in Florence, Ala,

Gates, whose previous high game was 108 yards rushing, also had 70 yards on four pass receptions, 33 yards on two punt returns and 40 yards on two kickoff returns.

Grand Valley was without two starters and two backups — including Berezik — who were indefinitely suspended earlier in the week for violating team rules. Berezik had 1,206 yards in 13 games this season. Gates entered the game with 793 yards rushing on 110 carries for 7.2 per try and seven touchdowns.

“He's been huge for us,” said Grand Valley coach Chuck Martin. “That's why you recruit to get as many good players as you can. P.T. has been spectacular all year long. He's a great player who has come a long ways.”

“It didn't affect anything,” said Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks said of the Grand Valley suspensions. “We didn't find out about it until Friday night. We feel it's as much of a disadvantage to us. It gives Grand Valley an edge psychologically to prove themselves. They're not going to let two or three players control the season for them.”

Gates, Sparks said, “was quick in making the cuts. He did a good job in finding the creases.”

“He came out and looked like he had something to prove,” said Eagle defensive tackle Brandon Harmon. “I don't think we executed our game plan. We made some adjustments but we didn't hem him up. He played a heckuva game.”

The 5-foot-11,195-pound running back from San Diego, Calif., played in 11 games last season with one start. He was ranked 10th nationally and led the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in punt returns with 14.1 yards per try.

Despite snow flurries, slippery field conditions and temperatures in the 20s, Gates played like he was back in California.

“I wasn't worrying about the conditions and how fast they were,” he said. “I was worried about being physical and running hard pretty much north and south instead of east and west.”

Gates acknowledged that he basically made a statement on his first carry of the game when he raced 59 yards to set up a Laker field goal.

“We told them this was our house and we need to protect it with everything we've got,” he said.

Grand Valley is 17-1 in home playoff games since 2001.

Gates said he first heard about Grand Valley years ago on ESPN, which televised Saturday's game. He'll be seen on the network again in Saturday's national title game.

“TV is TV. They'll make of it what they make of it. You can't look at it as playing on TV,” Gates said. “I have to do something special. I have to go with the game plan. Now that I'm here, it's awesome.”

Gates transferred to Grand Valley from Saddleback Junior College where he rushed for 1,059 yards and 16 TDs as a sophomore.

“I stay low to the ground and get good balance,” he said. “One thing you don't want to do is run over your toes. You want to keep your weight back so when you make contact you can deliver a blow, which I did.”

Gates said he was disappointed to hear about the suspensions, especially concerning Berezik.

“I wish the best for him. He's my roommate on all the away games,” Gates said. “We talk about everything.”

But with Berezik out of the lineup, “I was ready to play like every other week,” Gates said.

As for playing in Alabama, “I know it's going to be a lot warmer,” Gates smiled. “That's the best part.”