When Pete Shinnick began recruiting for the start-up University of West Florida football program five years ago, all the head coach had was a vision to sell to players.
No Pen Air Field. No Darrell Gooden Center. And no history to talk about. Just a vision of the potential this program could achieve if the pieces all fell into place.
Ten players still remain from that original class, including Navarre’s own Quentin Randolph.
“We told the guys they have an opportunity to build something special,” Shinnick said in a press conference Thursday. “Our success is because we have guys that bought into the vision.”
That vision has extended far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined.
On Saturday at McKinney ISD Stadium in Texas, the 20th-ranked Argonauts (12-2) will play fourth-ranked Minnesota State (14-0) for the NCAA Division II national championship. Kickoff is 2:05 p.m. CST.
It is UWF’s second appearance in the final game in the four-year history of the program and are seeking their first crown. They were the runner-up in 2017. The Mavericks are back in the championship game for the first time since 2014 and are also seeking their first title.
“We’re excited about this opportunity,” Shinnick said. “We did this a couple of years ago, so there is some familiarity with our program in this process.”
UWF went 6-5 last season, a disappointing mark for a team that played in the title game a year earlier. Shinnick challenged his team to bounce back and the players responded.
“We were about 40 minutes away from being a playoff team. We talked about how we lost four games in the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter,” Shinnick said. “So as we prepared our team for this year, we said we were going to try find 40 minutes.”
And now UWF is 60 minutes of football away from winning a national championship.
Getting here wasn’t easy, especially playing four consecutive playoff games on the road.
After a win over Wingate in the playoff opener, the Argos needed a 75-yard game-winning drive to take out Valdosta State 38-35. It then needed a clutch pick by D’Anthony Bell to hold off Lenoir-Rhyne in a 43-38 victory.
“We had to score a touchdown (against Valdosta) to win and we do that. The next week, the defense gets it done. They need a stop and they get it,” Shinnick said. “It’s that belief, the unity and brotherhood that has kept these guys moving in the right direction. It’s one of the main reasons we are here today.”
That continued into last week against Ferris State last week in snowy Michigan when UWF forced a school record six turnovers and rallied for a 28-14 national semifinal win.
Tate Lehtio caught two touchdown passes in the victory, including the go-ahead score with 10 minutes left in the game.
Lehtio is part of a talented receiver group that makes big play after big play. It’s a group that features five players with 23 or more catches. Lehtio has 82 for 982 yards.
Randolph, a former Navarre Raider, is the all-time single-season leader in touchdown catches (9). He is having the best year of his career.
“We have the best receiving corps in the nation,” Lehtio said. “I think we do a great job of pushing each other to be better. We don’t care who is making plays each Saturday, but in practice, we have a friendly competition going on. We’re extremely happy for each other, That’s why we are so successful.”
Austin Reed has played a key role in making that offense go, throwing for more than 3,500 yards (3,561) and 34 touchdowns. He’s thrown for two or more touchdowns nine times.
“He’s matured so much and works really hard,” Lehtio said. “He watches a lot of film, and he has good communication with all of the receivers. We’ve all grown so much.”
Having a great offensive line to play behind doesn’t hurt either. Four of the linemen started in the national championship game in 2017.
“This is the best offensive line we’ve had in the history of our program. Our O-line has been phenomenal,” Shinnick said. “They give our offense the opportunity to be successful.”
The Argo defense has done its job as well, allowing just 18.2 points per outing. It has forced six turnovers in a game twice this year and have recorded a nation’s-best 21 fumble recoveries.
UWF will be put to the test against the Mavericks, who destroyed Slippery Rock 58-15 in its national semifinal game last week.
The Mavericks are 40-2 over the last three seasons and are cranking out 40.8 points and 514.6 yards per game, including nearly 300 per game (293.1) on the ground.
Nate Gunn leads the attack with 1,611 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns while defensively, the Mavericks are allowing just 12.9 points and 244 yards per outing.
The Argos will have to be at their best, but that’s nothing new to a team that has pushed itself to the brink of football glory.
The vision that Shinnick sold his original recruiting class is a reality now and the ultimate goal in college athletics is within sight.
“We know we have to play our best and feel we’ve been tested week in and week out,” Shinnick said. “We like our opportunity and we’re excited about the matchup.”
With a win over Minnesota State Saturday, the Argos will have beaten three consecutive No. 1 seeds, something that has never been done.
UWF has knocked off three unbeaten teams during its run, an NCAA record and regardless of Saturday’s outcome, it will have the best winning percentage in NCAA D-II playoff history.
The Argos have beaten three top 10 teams in this playoff run, including the top two teams.
Randolph is a former walk-on at UWF who has caught eight touchdowns in the last six games. The former Raider has 14 games in his career in which he caught at least three passes.
Chanler Ferguson leads the UWF defense in tackles with 88. He is part of a defense that has forced at least one turnover in 47 of the 51 games the Argos have played in program history.
UWF lost 37-27 to Texas A&M Commerce in its first title game trip. Minnesota State fell 13-0 to Colorado State Pueblo.
The Argos’ appearance in the championship game marks the sixth time in this decade that a Gulf South Conference team is playing for the title.
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