Although the Lenoir-Rhyne football team was coming off its best season ever as it headed into the 2014 season, it still had some questions to answer.
Could the Bears replace the talented players who graduated, including All-American and South Atlantic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Michael Green?
How would new head coach Ian Shields fare as he took the reins from Mike Houston, who left for the Citadel?
Would the team rest on its laurels from last year, when it reached the Division II championship game?
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Those questions were answered definitively, and the answer to the last question was a resounding “no.”
Lenoir-Rhyne went undefeated this season, winning its fourth straight SAC title and claiming a top seed in one of the four regions for the NCAA Division II tournament.
The Bears will host the winner of a first-round game between North Alabama and Valdosta State at noon Dec. 6.
They have accomplished all that with a dominating defense and triple-option run game.
Lenoir-Rhyne led both the conference and the nation in rushing offense at 415.5 yards per game. Theteam has four players with more than 600 yards rushing on the season, led by senior Chris Robinson’s 1,335 yards, and 12 touchdowns.
Senior Quarterback Miles Freeman also had 12 touchdowns on the ground and threw for five scores. The line was led by junior Joe Ray, who won the SAC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy given to the top offensive lineman.
“We have a lot of guys who can hurt a defense,” Shields said. “It starts with Miles; he’s found a home here and has had a tremendous senior season and makes good decisions with the ball.”
On defense, the Bears have allowed only 14.9 points per game, best in the league and ninth nationally. Senior linebacker Tanner Botts was the team’s leading tackler and was the SAC Defensive Player of the Year, while senior defensive lineman Blake Baker, from Alexander Central High School, led the SAC with 10.5 sacks.
“We’ve really been led by our seniors,” Shields said. “They’re class young men and really bought into myself and our staff right away. They’ve been a pleasure to coach.”
Heading to the playoffs, Lenoir-Rhyne was ranked third in the NCAA Division II polls, but the road won’t be easy, starting with the first game. The Bears, Valdosta State and North Alabama have combined for six national championships since 1994. And if the Bears win that game, the team may face second-seeded Delta State, which was the 2000 national champs and 2010 runners-up.
And that would only get the Bears to the semi-final round.
“Hopefully the bye week will get us healthy,” Shields said. “Any opponent we face in the playoffs has the ability to win a national title, so we must be ready every day, and that starts in practice. If we do that we have as good a chance as anybody.”
The football team isn’t the only Lenoir-Rhyne sport to make postseason play. The women’s volleyball team earned its second straight NCAA bid and was to face Armstrong Atlantic Nov. 20 at Wingate in the Southeast Regional.
And the women’s soccer team won its first two games in the NCAAs and was set to face Columbus State Nov. 21 in the Southeast Regional final and Round of 16 in Winter Park, Fla.
“It’s great,” Shields said of the other programs’ success. “You love to come to work at a place where the administration has a true commitment to our programs, both on and off the court, and you’re seeing the results of that commitment.”