It's almost unfathomable. West Florida is in the national championship game against Texas A&M-Commerce Saturday, December 16 from Kansas City, Kansas.
Both teams will be playing for their respective program's first national championship. Texas A&M-Commerce has taken nearly a century of football to get to this point. West Florida?
“I don’t know how you can expect this," redshirt-freshman quarterback Mike Beaudry told NCAA.com. "Of course you have faith in your team and believe in yourself, but to be in the national championship game? You have to play a lot of great football for a lot of games in a row. I wouldn’t say I expected this, but I’m not really surprised.”
“My goal was to make the playoffs in year two," head coach Pete Shinnick added. "I don’t know that I thought beyond that to be honest with you. I always felt once you got in, if you got a hot team anything’s possible. And we got a hot team.”
The Argonauts are the feel-good story of the DII football season. It started with a regular season finale upset of No. 24 West Georgia and continued through the playoffs. The Argos claimed their first Super 2 Region championship by defeating three nationally ranked teams -- No. 16 Wingate, No. 25 West Georgia and No. 17 West Alabama -- on the road, before heading north to Pennsylvania to upset No. 1-seeded Indiana (Pa.) in conditions unfamiliar to the Pensacola, Florida natives.
“We can’t let the elements stop us," Beaudry said. "I think we did a really good job at that as a team in Pennsylvania, that was the coldest game we played in.
“It’s cool to see how we can perform against the No. 1 seed. It shows that when we play our best football it’s good enough to play with anyone. But we can’t focus on what happened last week.”
The task at hand won't be an easy one. Texas A&M-Commerce has one of the best student-athletes in DII football in quarterback Luis Perez. The Argos know one of the main focuses will be stopping the high-octance Lions offense.
“I think it will be a great matchup," Shinnick said. "[Luis Perez] can probably win the Harlon Hill. We know we got a challenge and we know we got our work cut out for us. But every week we’ve done this, we’ve kind of felt the same way. We’ve been telling our team our best is good enough and they’ve been answering the call.”
|28.07||Points per game|
|20.3||Points allowed per game|
|348.6||Yards gained per game|
|323.8||Yards allowed per game|
Luckily, they have a red-hot defensive front up to the task. John Williamson and his GSC-best 13.5 sacks leads an aggressive unit tasked with facing one of the best offensive lines in DII football. It should be the battle of the championship game.
“They’re a group that has a lot of fun together," Shinnick said of his defense. "They’ve really responded well to Darian Dulin, our new defensive coordinator. It’s really kind of our team, though. Our team likes being together, traveling together. Both sides of the ball are very excited for each other no matter what’s taking place.”
“To have a defense like we got, it changes games really," Beaudry said. "From an offensive standpoint we started to realize that all we had to do was change the field position and they were going to perform. Not every possession you have to get points. If you start backed up in your own end, we just have to change field position, if we get points, we get points, that’s great.”
The West Florida's offense shouldn't be looked over though. Beaudry had an award-winning season his first year under center, taking home Gulf South Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. He threw for 2,963 yards and 28 touchdowns, but it was more than the numbers that he brings to the table.
“Mike’s been a very mature guy," Shinnick said. "He’s one of the hardest working guys on the team. He’ll continue to stay out after practice to throw routes and extra balls. He’s really provided tremendous leadership though his work ethic and example. He’s a great guy also. All those things wrapped together, guys just like playing for him.”
Battle tested. Road tested. Weather tested. There really isn't anything left that West Florida hasn't faced. They can attribute that to playing in the GSC, the conference that sent four teams to the postseason, one of which was not the 2016 national runner-up North Alabama. That's just how deep this conference runs.
“The thing that we found out very early is that the Gulf South Conference is great competition," Shinnick said. "Then having to play Wingate and IUP, the GSC prepares you well for the postseason because you’re going to see really good players across the board at every position.”
This team has grown closer than most teams could ever imagine. The Argos aren't simply making new history, they are living it every day, building it from the ground up.
“I really think we have the best culture out of any team in the country right now," Beaudry said. "A lot of people here have been through a lot together, so many people were here from the start when we didn’t even play a season. The people who have come here have joined the family right away. It’s been fun to experience this with people like this, we have a great brotherhood going. This is an experience we’re never going to forget.”
It's the last dance for Cinderella. This remarkable story, win or lose, will come to an end Saturday. Whatever happens, this program set a precedent for future Argos that anything is possible.
“I’ve told people all along, the first recruiting class is a special class because they did buy into the vision," Shinnick said. "They did believe what we said. I couldn’t be happier for them to reap the benefit of great success early because it was them saying I want to be a part of that team that opened the door for everybody else.”