DII football: Emporia State vs. Minnesota Duluth, other first-round games to watch
Emporia State led by hometown quarterback
Sophomore quarterback Braxton Marstall has spent all 20 years of his life in Emporia, Kansas, and has never seen Emporia State play a home playoff game at Welch Stadium.
The last time it happened was 1989, and current head coach Garin Higgins was a junior on the football team competing in the NAIA.
Thanks to a 10-game winning streak, the home playoff drought ends when Emporia State (10-1) takes on Minnesota Duluth (10-1) at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Welch Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“It has been a long time,” Higgins said. “We have been working really hard to get this team on a national level. Now that we have it, not only are our players rewarded for the hard work, the same thing goes for the fans, our community and university.”
Higgins gives some of the credit to this year’s success to Marstall, who helped engineer three fourth-quarter comebacks this season.
Simply put, Marstall has handled the pressure of playing quarterback in his hometown and replacing All-American quarterback Brent Wilson, who led the Hornets to the quarterfinals a year ago.
All Marstall has done in his first season as the starter is throw for 2,791 yards and 24 touchdowns and rush for 533 yards and seven touchdowns.
Marstall, though, credits everybody for the Hornets success.
“We are a good football team,” he said. “We are a team. Defense will pick us up when we are struggling on offense, and if the defense is having a hard time, the offense will put points on the board. We have each other’s back and are able to find a way to get it done each week.”
Still, he calls it a cool experience playing college football in his hometown. He grew up dreaming about playing at Kansas State. But dreams change, and the one Marstall is currently living couldn’t be better.
“You go out in your community and people know who you are,” Marstall said. “They congratulate you on the season and stuff like that. It is definitely cool being at home and having the community support you.”
Marstall missed most of his senior football season in high school when he broke his collarbone. He saw some action at Emporia State in 2014 when an injury to Wilson forced him into action. Marstall redshirted last season.
“The potential for him is off the charts,” Higgins said. “He is continuing to learn how to be a quarterback. He has all the attributes you want. He has the physical ability, the arm strength, a coach’s son. He understands the game. The kid has handled the pressure. He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get flustered.”
The Hornets understand they have a tough challenge ahead of them in the rugged Super Region Three that features three undefeated teams, including defending Division II national champions Northwest Missouri State.
“We are 10-1 and a fourth seed, and we are hosting a fifth seed that is also 10-1,” Higgins said.
Both the Hornets and Minnesota Duluth lost their season-opener and have since won 10 straight. Emporia State knew it had a good team despite falling to Northwest Missouri in the opener.
“Like coach said, we can’t let one game define us,” Martstall said. “Each week, we took it one step at a time. We got hot in the middle of the season, and we kept going.”
In 2013, Emporia State played at Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the playoffs and lost 55-13.
“It is going to be a tough challenge,” Marstall said. “When we played them in 2013, they took it to us. We are looking forward to the opportunity. We are taking it one game at a time.”
|Minnesota Duluth||Emporia State|
Azusa Pacific looking forward to game at Sioux Falls
It is never easy dropping the final game of the regular season, especially when you are on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history.
That was the spot Azusa Pacific was in after losing to non-conference foe Colorado Mesa.
“At the same time, our team learned a lot of lessons from that game,” said Azusa Pacific junior quarterback Andrew Elffers. “We feel battle ready going into the playoffs.”
Yes, the Cougars put together a great body of work during the 2016 season to earn their first playoff berth in the NCAA Division II. Azusa Pacific (9-2) will play at No. 2 Sioux Falls (11-0) in a Super Region Three first-round game.
The only two losses for Azusa Pacific came in non-conference games against two schools that made the playoffs. The other loss was to Colorado School of Mines. Azusa Pacific also beat West Texas A&M in a non-conference game.
“Playing tough competition helps you become a tougher competitor,” Azusa Pacific coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We are fired up we did play West Texas and we did play Mines and we did play Mesa. They are all championship-caliber programs. As a head coach, you are a so fired up for the players. You see them every day and the sacrifices they make and you want the very best for them. I know the school is thrilled for the players. They are well-deserving. These young men have put a lot into this.”
Now that the Cougars are one of 28 Division II left playing for a national title, they are keeping their heads on straight and attacking this game like any other.
“We are looking forward to a chance to make a name for ourselves,” Elffers said. “Our goal wasn’t just to make it in the playoffs but to make a run in the playoffs.
“Right now, we have Sioux Falls ahead of us. It is one step at a time. Overall, we are definitely excited with the opportunity.”
|Azusa Pacific||Sioux Falls|
Building a team was Southwest Baptist path to its first playoff appearance
Junior wide receiver Kendrick Payne is one example of what Southwest Baptist football staff had in mind when it was building a program capable of winning on a national level.
Current head coach Robert Clardy was an assistant when the program made philosophical change.
“The mindset changed to recruiting high school players and building up players through the program,” Clardy said. “We knew we would have some growing pains the first couple of years. But by the time these kids were sophomores and juniors and getting into game 22, 23 of their careers, they were going to have the experience we needed.”
It worked. Southwest Baptist, 10-1, earned the No. 3 seed in Super Region Four, and will play at home against Colorado School of Mines at 1 p.m. CT Saturday.
Payne, who earned All-GLVC honors since his first year arriving at Southwest Baptist from San Lorenzo, California, has really excelled this season. He has caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Clardy likes the leadership qualities that Payne brings just as much as the production he provides to the Bearcats on the field.
“He always has a positive attitude when he is on the practice field,” Clardy said. “If he is sick, or down or having a rough day, he is always going to come out with a smile on his face because that will plug energy into the rest of the team. That is all we can ask for from a captain. He accepts the fact all we want to do is win games. He is not about stats.”
Payne said the family atmosphere is why he and the team has succeeded, going from four wins last year to 10 so far this season. He felt that family atmosphere from the first day he arrived at Southwest Baptist.
“They welcomed me in with open arms,” Payne said. “Not having a father in my life, a lot of the coaches feel like father figures so for me it made it more personal.
“Having players come onboard with the same mindset all played a part in our success. We treat each other like a family. It is more than a football program for us.”
For the Bearcats, getting this opportunity to compete in the playoffs means everything to them.
“We have been through a lot as a team and a program and to finally see it all pay off means a lot to us,” Payne said. “Just knowing it affects more people than just on the field, but also our family and all the people who saw us put in the work.
“The biggest thing for us is to have fun and to have the intensity when we get out on the field. We are going to treat it like another week and have fun out there, and I think we will be fine.”
|Colorado Mines||Southwest Baptist|