KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The anticipation of playing in the NCAA Division II national championship football game was easy to see in the players from North Alabama and Northwest Missouri State.
Early Thursday evening they arrived at Children’s Mercy Park for the Kickoff media conference. The fact that temperatures hovered in the middle 20s meant little to them.
The main thing on their minds was the upcoming game, scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday. It figures to be an intense, defensive battle between old money (North Alabama) against new money (Northwest Missouri).
North Alabama, 11-1, is making its fifth appearance in the national championship game, but first since 1995 when the Lions capped off three straight titles, all played at their home, Braly Stadium in Florence, Alabama.“It is a thrill for us to make this trip and have the opportunity to compete against Northwest Missouri State,” North Alabama coach Bobby Wallace said. “It is going to be a tremendous challenge. In ’93, ’94 and ’95 we got to play the national championship at our stadium and we won all three years. Now I get to see what it feels like on the other side of the coin. It will be interesting."
Northwest, 15-0 and winners of its last 29 games, is playing in its third national title game in four years and 10th overall. The Bearcats have won five national titles, four of them coming in Florence.
“It is difficult to get to the top and I think it is a little more difficult to stay there,” Northwest Missouri coach Adam Dorrel said. “The fact that our guys each and every day and each and every week are able to get up and play hard and do things the right way when there is a target on their back speaks volumes on the character of kids we have at Northwest Missouri State. It starts with our 16 seniors.”
The Bearcats won the last national title game played at Braly in 2013 and then experienced winning the national title in Kansas City last season in front of a championship-record crowd of 16,181 fans.
All those interesting facts mean little when the Bearcats and Lions step on the field Saturday afternoon, with temperatures expected to be below 20 degrees and the possibility of snow flying around.
Northwest players are obviously more accustomed to playing in wintry weather than the Lions. But North Alabama senior quarterback Jacob Tucker said the Lions are ready for whatever conditions greet them.“I haven’t played in weather colder than what we are expecting Saturday,” Tucker said. “The biggest thing is when you are playing football in December, you got to expect cold weather. If you are playing in late December, you got to expect really cold weather.
“December 17 has been our goal all season. We knew we had to play in some cold weather to accomplish our final goal. As far as affecting how the game goes, I don’t see it as a big factor. We have guys who are going to make plays regardless of the wind and the snow.”
Everything points to an old-fashioned, grind-it-out football game. Northwest has allowed 12.6 points per game, ranking first in Division II.
“We have so much fun playing with each other,” said Kevin Berg, Northwest Missouri's senior free safety. “We had a very good year last year and we wanted to build off that.”
North Alabama has been nearly as good, giving up 13.3 points per game, which ranks second in Division II.
“We have a great two deep roster,” said Khyle Jackson, North Alabama's senior safety. “Our backups are just as good as our starters. When somebody goes down or gets tired, we have somebody come in and fill their place. We have a lot depth on the defensive side of the ball and that is what keeps us going defensively.”
In addition, this game will feature two of the best quarterbacks in Division II in Tucker and Kyle Zimmerman of Northwest Missouri. Both players are Harlon Hill Trophy finalists.
Tucker has thrown for 2,661 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 902 yards and 16 touchdowns. Zimmerman has been just as dynamic, throwing for 3,663 yards and 36 touchdowns and rushing for 253 yards and seven touchdowns.“I am feeling great,” Zimmerman said about coming into the championship game. “It is extremely special to play here in Kansas City. “Coming back home, I know there are going to be a lot of family and friends at the game.”
And finally, both coaches are the epitome of putting together successful teams on a yearly basis. In 15 years at North Alabama, Wallace has compiled a 126-50-1 record, three national titles and seven Gulf South Conference championships, the most in GSC history.
“We have had a tremendous year, very exciting,” Wallace said. “This team has been the most consistent team I have ever coached. They come to play every Saturday. I am really proud of them.”
Dorrel is in his sixth season as head coach at Northwest Missouri. He has guided the Bearcats to two national titles, four Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association titles and a 75-8 record.
“People ask what our secret is and our secret is when our kids get done with English class, they are not going, ‘man I got to go to football practice.’ They go, ‘I can’t wait to get to practice.’ It is almost like recess. At least that is what I think,” Dorrel said.
Simply put, this is a classic matchup between two proud programs.