PEMBROKE — It’s been a while since John Rich and L.J. Stroman have had to practice on Thanksgiving, but they didn’t mind at all this week.
“It feels good to be practicing,” Rich said. “There are a lot of teams that aren’t right now and they wish they could be.”
The last time the former Richmond Senior standouts prepared for a game over the holiday was in 2010. Butler ended the duo’s senior season with the Raiders with a 48-21 victory in the third round of the state 4AA playoffs.
Now Rich and Stroman hope for better results this time as the pair will try to help UNC Pembroke pick up its first NCAA Division II playoff victory today at Grace P. Johnson Stadium against North Alabama. Kickoff is slated for noon.
The Braves earned the No. 2 seed in the Super Regional Two with a 9-1 mark this season. They have victories over tradition Division II powers Winston-Salem State and Valdosta State this year. Those two schools clashed in last season’s title tilt, with the Blazers grabbing the crown.
The winner of today’s game will take on either the region’s top seed Lenoir-Rhyne or fourth-seeded Carson-Newman in next week’s quarterfinal contest.
UNCP’s lone blemish this season came in a 24-21 loss at Newberry. A contest both Rich and Stroman felt helped the team re-focus on its goal — winning a national championship.
“I think we needed to lose,” Rich said. “We made a bunch of mistakes in the game. It humbled us.”
Stroman added despite the less than perfect effort against the Wolves, the Braves were still close enough to pull out the victory.
“We got back to what we need to do,” he said. “It was probably the worst game defensively we played all year. The offense and the defense didn’t play well, but we still nearly won. Now we’re rolling.”
Since the loss, UNCP have won three straight and is averaging 52.1 points and surrendering 16.1 points a game during this stretch. It knocked off Tusculum 60-20, beat Valdosta State on the road 34-29 and blanked Virginia-Lynchburg 63-0.
And now the Braves have turned their attention to the Lions (9-2). North Alabama escaped with a 30-27 victory over Tuskegee in last week’s opening round.
The Lions are no strangers to playing in the postseason, having won three straight championships from 1993 to 1995.
“They will run the ball, they are definitely a run-oriented team,” Stroman said. “Their quarterback and backfield are pretty good. They don’t pass a lot but their wide receiver corps will block you. They usually go to the slot or inside guy when they pass because they will do a lot of crossing routes off play action.”
Rich chimed in and believes UNCP could have the opportunity to showcase a strategy which was effective in a 45-22 win at Charlotte.
“They are a good team and real fast,” he said. “They have big defensive ends that like to jump and knock passes down. I think we have a chance to use our short passing game against them.”
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.