THERE ARE only four Division II teams still playing football. West Chester (13-1) is one of them, for only the second time ever and first in 9 years. The other time the Golden Rams made it this far, they lost at eventual national champion Valdosta State (Ga.), 45-21. Realistically, they didn't have much of a chance. That's the way it often works at that level, once you get to a certain point.
But this time, well, maybe things are a little different.
"Right now, we're going to approach it like we're going there to win," said coach Bill Zwaan, whose team will be at 12-1 Lenoir-Rhyne (Hickory, N.C.) tomorrow afternoon for the right to go to the Dec. 21 title game in Florence, Ala. "The kids really feel that way.
"We're probably playing better right now than we were back in 2004, because our defense is playing really well.
"We were so excited to play Valdosta. They were a great team. But I don't know if we could have ever beaten them. If we played 50 times, maybe once or twice. But we feel like we might have a team that might really be special, and possibly do something that's beyond what people think."
Both West Chester and L-R have already set program records for victories in a season. The Bears, who haven't lost since their opener, are in the semifinals for the first time since 1962. But that was in the NAIA, where they won the title in 1960, not the NCAA. They've won 19 of their last 20 at home. The Rams have won eight straight on the road, including the last 2 weeks in the playoffs. The teams have met twice, but not since 1970. The Rams took both.
"They haven't been one of those powerhouses, like Grand Valley and Northwest Missouri [the other matchup] have been," Zwaan said. "So it's a little new for them, too. They're not used to being here. But they've beaten some good teams. At this stage, they're all good teams."
West Chester, which has mostly gotten it done with offense, won at Shepherd in the quarterfinals, 28-7, returning two fourth-quarter interceptions for touchdowns on back-to-back offensive plays. L-R, which got a first-round bye as the top seed in Region 2, has never had to leave home. Last week it advanced with a three-point win over North Alabama, after beating Carson-Newman by seven.
"When you think about it, where we're at is almost crazy, in a good way," said sophomore defensive back Brandon Pepper, younger brother of Temple guard Dalton, who went to a basketball Final Four with West Virginia in 2010. "We knew we could make a run, but to do it the way we've done it . . . To be honest, I don't think we're just happy to be here. We want to make it to Alabama.
"A lot of people probably didn't give us a shot against Shepherd. But we didn't mind that at all. We just have to keep proving we're as good as anybody."
L-R runs the option, which of course presents an entirely different set of issues. But West Chester scored 40 at Bloomsburg 2 weeks ago, to avenge its lone loss. That might have to be the strategy for this one.
"We've only played it once [against Cheyney]," said Pepper, who has four picks in the tournament to go with a forced fumble. "In high school you always see it. You just have to be disciplined, keep reading your keys. They'll try to beat you to a certain angle. One mistake and they'll take it to the house on you.
"For some reason I personally think we play better on the road. In the hotel, there's not a lot of stuff going on around you. So it's real laid-back. If we're here, we're in the dorms or apartments on Friday night. It's a college town. Everyone's partying."
For a change, there is a plane ride involved, for a team used to long bus trips.
"I guess that could be a distraction," Pepper said. "We had one guy who was like, 'I've never flown before.' It's kind of funny. Well, maybe not for him."
Bloomsburg was the last PSAC to reach the final, in 2000. Indiana (Pa.) got there in 1990 and '93. No PSAC team has hoisted the trophy.
"A lot of teams never get this opportunity," said Zwaan. "As I said to the kids, when you think of where we were on Aug. 15 to what we're talking about now, it's so rewarding. But nobody wants it to stop. We all have goals. When I think about our crowd running on the field last week, that's the kind of stuff we'll remember forever. We want other stuff to remember. Hopefully we'll build up one huge memory."