A few minutes past seven Wednesday night, the West Chester football players filed into the fieldhouse at the NovaCare Complex.
They dropped their bags against a wall, tossed aside the sweatshirts and coats they'd worn on the bus ride from campus to ward off the December chill, and pulled out their cell phones. They snapped photos of the practice field that usually belongs to the Eagles, but for a night, was all theirs.
Such are the perks of being one of only four teams left playing in Division II football.
The Golden Rams play at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, N.C., on Saturday at noon in the semifinals of the Division II playoffs.
"I'm glad they had their cell phones out and were taking pictures, and I'm glad the Eagles let us do this because it does make them feel like they're in the Final Four," coach Bill Zwaan said. "That's special."
As Zwaan examined his new digs, a few yards away, his special running back, Rondell White, gawked along with the rest. Perhaps of all the Rams, White has the best chance of being more than just a guest at an NFL facility someday.
The senior, a West Chester Rustin graduate, once deemed too slow and small to play at the Division I level, has amassed a resume strong enough to garner NFL attention.
White is the first Division II player and only the second in college football to reach 4,000 yards rushing, 2,000 yards receiving and 1,100 yards in returns. The other is Brian Westbrook, who did it between 1997 and 2001 at Villanova.
White enters Saturday's game trailing another NFL player, the Chargers' Danny Woodhead (Chadron State in Nebraska), by 194 yards for the Division II single-season all-purpose yards record. White has 2,965.
"The numbers he's put up, it's him and Brian Westbrook. Who even knows that until we all looked it up?" Zwaan said. "He's done it at a Division II school, and really up until this year, we weren't playing in the playoffs. So people didn't get a chance to know what he's doing. What's neat about playing in the playoffs now is that people are . . . starting to notice who he is."
This wouldn't be the first time White has been overlooked. A two-sport star at Rustin, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound White said he "slipped through the cracks" with Division I coaches. He often heard that he didn't have the size or the speed to play for them.
Zwaan is less circumspect about it.
"Some guys made a mistake, but it worked out for us," he said.
When those Division I offers failed to materialize, White wanted to stay close by, and he couldn't do much better than West Chester. The campus is about a minute from his home. It helped that the Rams allowed him to also play basketball, which he did for a season.
"I'm a believer that everything happens for a reason. Just because I didn't go Division I, doesn't mean you're not a good football player," White said. "You just come here and make the best of your situation, and I believe I have."
White owns 21 school records. His 7,500 career all-purpose yards are more than 1,000 better than anyone else in school history.
This season, White was named one of nine candidates for the Harlon Hill trophy, given to the Division II player of the year. He didn't make it to the final three, but he's the only one of the group still playing.
"That would [have been] pretty cool, but there's a bigger picture here," White said. "And that's what we as a team have been striving to get, and our goal is still achievable to us."
Despite bringing back most of the core of a team that went 7-4 last season and missed the playoffs by a single point, the Rams began the season unranked.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, they had climbed to No. 15 in the poll. They went on the road to avenge their only loss of the season, beating Bloomsburg in the second round, and took out Shepherd last week.
Now 13-1, the Rams have set a school record for wins in a single season and will make their second appearance in the national semifinals and first since 2004. They've won eight straight on the road dating back to last season.
The roster abounds with local products.
Junior quarterback Sean McCartney, an Archbishop Wood graduate, has thrown for 3,434 yards and 32 touchdowns. Ronell Williams, a junior middle linebacker from Chester, is the heart of the defense. Pennsbury's Brandon Pepper, a sophomore and brother of Temple basketball player Dalton Pepper, had two interceptions last week, including one he ran back for a touchdown.
A championship berth would give White the opportunity to make his case for an NFL chance on national television. It's not what he's focused on, but it would be a happy by-product of one more victory.
"As long as we keep winning," White said. "I guess the sky's the limit right now."
West Chester at Lenoir-Rhyne
Who: West Chester (13-1) at Lenoir-Rhyne (12-1)
When: Saturday at noon
At Stake: Berth in the NCAA Division II tournament championship game
DIVISION II SEMIFINAL TEAM CAPSULES
The Bears, ranked 13th in the country and hosting West Chester, have won 12 straight games behind a triple-option attack that averages a nation-best 372 rushing yards per game. The Bears are led by a pair of first-team all-Americans: sophomore offensive tackle Joe Ray and senior defensive back Michael Green. They've won 20 of their last 22 games.
Northwest Missouri State (13-0)
The No. 2 Bearcats, who are favored by more than three touchdowns against Grand Valley State, have scored an average of 46.8 points per game and allowed just 16.8 per game. They've scored 50 points or more in their last three games.
Grand Valley State (12-2)
The No. 22 Lakers won eight consecutive games, outscoring their opponents by an average of 37-22 during the streak. Grand Valley State is making its 16th appearance in the playoffs, and its .731 postseason-winning percentage is the best in Division II history.
- Tim McManus