It has been quite the ride for the senior class at Texas A&M-Commerce. It all culminates in the program's first appearance in the DII Football Championship title game Saturday, December 16 from Kansas City, Kansas.
Head coach Colby Carthel took over a program with a history of losing football games. He came to Commerce on January 23, 2013 on the heels of back-to-back 1-9 seasons. Carthel has completely changed the culture for the program, making them one of the best in DII football in a short time.
“There’s always a plan, but it’s sure nice when you see it come together," Carthel told NCAA.com. "This program was one of the most unsuccessful programs in the country. They hadn’t had a winning season in 15 years, I believe. What’s interesting, the red-shirt seniors came in that year just believing in a vision and are leaving with three straight conference championships and now playing for a national championship.”
The Lions quickly became a Lone Star Conference powerhouse, but that wasn't enough.
“After we won those three straight titles in the Lone Star, we kind of reset our goals," Carthel said. "We said let’s take this program to a national level and take this thing to the top. That’s where our focus has been. It’s really fun to see that plan and hard work come to fruition.”
A large part of the reason the Lions are in the championship game is the leadership and play of Luis Perez. The accolades continue to pile up for the star quarterback as All-American and Offensive Player of the Year honors keep rolling in this postseason. Perez's play speaks for itself, he led DII football with 4,678 yards passing, tossing 44 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. But that's not what makes Perez so valuable.
“He’s an unbelievable person, human being, student and husband," Carthel said. "He’s just a winner in every sense of the word. That first year he redshirted, he drove himself and his wife to Michigan through a blizzard to see our playoff game just to experience it. The next year he takes over and we win a playoff game. Last year he comes up to us, and tells us he did all the dishes and cleaning for two weeks so his wife would let him go to the national championship game. He said, “Coach, I want to know what it’s like when we get there next year.’ That’s just who he is. He doesn’t leave a stone unturned on the field or off of it.”
Perez, who has the luxury of playing behind two-time AFCA All-American offensive lineman Jared Machorro, has the Lions at the summit of the DII football world. They will be playing a very tough West Florida football team, who has faced plenty of adversity themselves, reaching the title game in just its second year of existence.
|37.1||Points scored per game (26th-best in DII)|
|16.0||Points allowed per game (14th-best in DII)|
|445.6||Yards gained per game (28th-best in DII)|
|306.4||Yards allowed per game (26th-best in DII)|
“We’re just trying to prepare like we do every week," Carthel said. "They are very talented, and have been on a run similar to us, in terms of having to go on the road and win some tough games really far away from home against some really quality opponents. We’re both battled-tested road warriors. It will be fun to suit up and compete against a really good team that’s similar in so many ways.
“I know the focus will be on them this week, which is fine by me. We’ll try to focus on what we need to do. But it is incredible what they’ve been able to do there in Pensacola.”
Machorro and his offensive line will be one of the primary focuses of the game. West Florida's defense has been on fire, and it starts with its defensive front. The battle at the line, two of the best in DII, could be the decisive point of the game.
“You got to be able to win in the trenches," Carthel said. "They do a great job showing you different schemes and with great athletes doing it. That’s the thing, they’re so athletic. They’re defensive front makes a lot of plays but that’s a credit to the back end. That’s going to be the matchup.”
Has it set in yet? The LSC’s Texas A&M Commerce Lions are headed to the NCAA Division 2 National Title Game. This will be the first time a team from the LSC will be in the Title game since 1994 (23 years). The last time a team won was in 1982@Lions_FB @LoneStarConf @CoachCarthel pic.twitter.com/HLPFQVn0iB— Joe Price (@JoePriceLSCd2) December 10, 2017
One of the advantages that the Lions have is depth. Perez, for example, has a bevy of wide receivers that have proven reliable. Buck Wilson leads the way with 950 yards and 11 touchdowns, but D'Arthur Cowan, Vincent Hobbs, Marquis Wimberly and Darrion Landry have combined for 30 touchdowns. Defensively, despite having AFCA All-American Yusef Sterling-Lowe highlighting the squad, the Lions are even deeper.
“I think our leadership, but the unselfishness of this team," Carthel said of why the depth is so valuable to this Lions' team. "Offensively we have so many talented players, they’re not always going to get the ball. Luis does a such a good job distributing the balls to the play makers that nobody ever throws a fit. Defensively, we have built this defense to be successful by playing a lot of players. We’ll play 25 or 28 players, getting a lot of snaps. Our defensive players don’t get the stats, that’s the unselfishness. They're willing to forego individual awards and accolades for the betterment of the team. That’s why you’re seeing us have the success that we are.”
So here they are. The Lions sit at 13-1, on the cusp of program history. Win or lose, this senior class has done what they set out to do from day one. They've taken Carthel's vision right to the top.
“It is special to me for these kids," Carthel said. "They signed on with us when we were rotten. The facilities were bad, the team was bad, there was no reason to come here. They turned down offers and showed the faith in us as a staff that we were going to get this thing turned around. They were there from day one, when no one was in the stands. They won three straight conference titles and put together a story book ending to their careers. Now they’re leaving as the all-time most successful senior class in 103 years of football. It means a lot to me to see this program evolve around these players. They deserve this stage."