The West Liberty University football program will honor its 18 seniors on Saturday when the Hilltoppers host UNC-Pembroke in a mutual season finale. The Hilltoppers (5-5) and the Braves (6-3) are set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Russek Field.
Every coach wants to send his seniors out on a positive note and West Liberty's Roger Waialae is no exception.
"This group has really run the gamut of emotions since they came here," Waialae said. "A lot of them were part of the NCAA playoff team that won 11 games in 2009. They went from that high to last year's low with the 1-win season. They've responded to that adversity and given themselves a chance to finish above .500, which really speaks well to their character. I have a lot of respect for the way they've persevered and helped get our program headed back in the right direction."
UNC-Pembroke rolls into Russek Field still in the thick of the NCAA Division II playoff hunt as the No. 8-ranked team in Super Region Two.
Ranked as high as No. 24 in the nation earlier this year, the Braves have had an extra week to prepare for the Hilltoppers as they were idle last Saturday. Pembroke hasn't played since a 31-24 victory against Newberry (S.C.) on Oct. 27 bumped the South Carolina team out of the regional rankings and put the Braves back on the post-season radar.
West Liberty had won three of its last four games before last week's disappointing 21-3 loss at Concord. The Mountain Lions used a pair of lengthy touchdown drives and a long field goal to grab a 16-0 halftime lead. That margin – along with 4 interceptions and a fumble – proved too much for the WLU offense to overcome against Concord's nationally-ranked defensive unit.
"I thought our defense dominated after giving up the two early drives," Waialae said, "but turnovers and inconsistency are still a problem for our offense. After looking at the tape, I thought our offensive line actually had one of its better games down there but our skill kids never got going.
"Our quarterbacks and receivers just had a bad game. We missed some throws we should have made and dropped some balls we should have caught. We've run the ball well at times in recent weeks but we haven't been consistent enough in our execution."
Pembroke, which handed the Hilltoppers a 31-10 setback in last year's regular season finale, is led by strong-armed quarterback Luke Charles and a deep and talented receiving corps.
Charles, a 6-1, 215-pound junior who holds most of the school's passing records, has thrown for nearly 240 yards a game and isn't afraid to take shots down the field. Six different UNCP receivers have caught at least one pass of 25 yards or longer. Junior Te'vell Williams – already the school's all-time leader in receiving yards, receptions and TD catches – leads the way with 46 grabs for 592 yards and 8 scores.
Junior TB Elliott Powell is a breakaway threat averaging better than 5 yards a carry. His 97-yard touchdown run in a 27-20 win against Catawba (N.C.) is the longest run from scrimmage in NCAA Division II this season.
"They're a very good football team with a lot of talented players who know they need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive," Waialae said. "It's a big challenge for us but it's also a big opportunity. I know it would be something special for our seniors to walk off the field on Saturday with a winning record and I think it would mean a lot to their teammates, as well."
X These 18 seniors will be honored by the coaching staff in a brief pre-game ceremony: LB Kyle Agustin; WR Anthony Armstead; DL Nick Augustyn; OL Jose Baez; DL Matt Betz; WR Hakeem Cartwright; QB L.D. Crow; WR Tristen Devers; RB Vernon Dunnom; OL Dino Herrera; PK Jeff Hoak; DL Nate Parry; OL Josh Varney; RB Scott Victorio; DL Leonidas Redding; WR Brandon Schroeder; DL Bryan Spruill and WR Darrell Stanley
X The Hilltoppers have held all 10 opponents under 30 points this season
X UNC-Pembroke head coach Pete Shinnick is the son of former NFL linebacker Don Shinnick
X West Liberty's 37 turnovers (21 interceptions, 16 fumbles) are the most in Division II this year
X The Braves have committed only 12 turnovers (9 interceptions, 3 fumbles) all season