No break for Lenoir-Rhyne as it enters Division II playoffs

While most of Lenoir-Rhyne’s students are heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Tanner Botts still is on campus working out with the football team.

With what’s at stake, Botts wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Bears (11-0) – two weeks removed from their first undefeated regular season since 1962 – will host Valdosta State (9-2) in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday. Game time at Moretz Field is noon.

“Oh yeah, I love to practice at this time of the year,” Botts, a senior defensive tackle, said Tuesday. “Especially since we’ve got something to practice for.”

This is the third straight year the Bears’ players and coaches have had to give up their Thanksgiving weekend to prepare for the playoffs.

In 2012, Lenoir-Rhyne’s season ended with a second-round loss to conference rival Carson-Newman – also a Thanksgiving weekend game – but last year the Bears earned a first-round bye and advanced to the Division II championship game.

That weekend also was the last time Lenoir-Rhyne has lost, falling to Northwest Missouri State 43-28. While getting back to the Division II title game has been Goal No. 1 for the Bears this season, Botts said it’s not even being thought about – yet.

“We can’t afford to think that far ahead,” said Botts, recently named the South Atlantic Conference’s defensive player of the year. “We’ve got a pretty good Valdosta State team ahead of us.”

That’s not saying Lenoir-Rhyne’s players and coaches aren’t going to celebrate the holiday.

While the players who didn’t make the cut for the 54-man playoff roster will get to go home for a few days before returning for Saturday’s game, the remaining players – along with their families – will gather on campus for a big Thanksgiving feast.

“They’re used to this time of the year,” said first-year coach Ian Shields, the SAC’s coach of the year. “They expect to be playing football when we’re supposed to be eating turkey.

“But we’ve got two great football teams – us and Valdosta State – that are going to go head to head. It ought to be fun.”