Saint Francis at Reinhardt (Ga.)
What: NAIA semifinals
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ken White Field, Waleska, Ga.
Radio: 106.3 FM
Saint Francis got its rematch in the NAIA semifinals, it just wasn’t the one it was expecting.
The No. 4 Cougars (11-1) will get a second chance at returning to the NAIA championship game Dec. 17 but standing in their way will be No. 3 Reinhardt of Georgia (13-0) and not top-ranked and 2015 national champ Marian, which was knocked off last week 17-0 by Eastern Oregon.
Marian had beaten Saint Francis the last two meetings, including last year’s NAIA semifinals at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium.
“We were ready to play whoever,” junior receiver Sean Boswell said. “We knew situations can vary going into the last round. We are onto the next round, and we are focused just on Reinhardt. We are not worried about anybody that is not in the mix anymore.”
So the playoff rematch will come from the Eagles, who the Cougars beat in an NAIA opener last year, 37-26, in a snowstorm.
Sophomore running back Justin Green ran for a then-school record 252 yards against Reinhardt. Green broke his own record with 296 yards last week in a come-from-behind 42-35 win over Morningside in the quarterfinals.
“We look at last year, but, honestly, it is a totally different situation,” Boswell said. “We are not in the snow, for one, and we are down at their place, and they have the home-field advantage. They are a totally revamped team, and they are better than last year. We are just going into it focused on what they have this year and what we have this year.”
Saint Francis was going to be on the road for the NAIA semifinals anyway, but the Cougars just expected to be two hours down Interstate 69 for a game in Indianapolis against Marian.
“I am sure everybody was surprised,” senior defensive back Jerrell Holman said of Marian losing. “They were supposed to be the big powerhouse and also some people on our team was ready to get another shot at them. It doesn’t really matter to me. Whoever was next on the doorstep was going to come knocking and going to bust in.”
So instead it will be a nearly 10-hour trip to Reinhardt that Saint Francis will break up from Thursday into today.
“I wanted to go down there and play – shorter drive,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said of Marian. “It’s all part of what you have to do. You have an objective you need to accomplish and you have to overcome the obstacles that get you there.”
The goal is returning to the NAIA national championship game for the first time in a decade when the Cougars were runners-up in 2004 through 2006. Last year, Saint Francis fell at home to Marian 45-14 in the semifinals.
“We definitely recognize we were at this point last year, and we felt like we came up short of our ultimate goal,” Boswell said.
“It is in the back of our mind going into this game that we want to get over that hump.”
The Eagles have won 13 straight games – every game this season – since that loss to the Cougars. Reinhardt will again bring in a fast, run-oriented team with a wing-T offensive look.
“They are a very fast team, probably the fastest team we play all year,” Holman said. “We just have to do our assignments and do our jobs. That’s the main thing we will focus on this week. It is nice to play someone we are familiar with, but also they have pretty much the same people returning. It should be a great game.”
And this unexpected road trip could result in another trip south in two weeks to play in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the NAIA championship.
“You start thinking about the next one and you are going to stub your toe,” Donley said of the Cougars keeping their focus on Reinhardt. “When you get down to the final four, they are good football teams or they wouldn’t be there. You have to handle all the distractions.”