Lions ready for semifinal bout

Lions Harlon Hill candidate quarterback Jacob Tucker looking for an open receiver as he scrambles outside the pocket during North Alabama’s quarterfinal game against North Greenville. With the 38-0 victory over the Crusaders, UNA advances to the semifinals for the first time since 2008.

by Managing Editor Mike Ezekiel

The word “semifinal” has eluded North Alabama head football coach Bobby Wallace since his return to the helm in 2012.

Until last week’s 38-0 win over North Greenville assured UNA’s spot among the final four teams in the NCAA Division II playoffs, the Lions were on an eight-year semifinal drought, dating back to 2008.

But now, the Super Region 2 champion will turn its attention to Shepherd, who will host the Lions Dec. 10 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with a national championship appearance on the line.

 “We have to be hungry for this game,” Wallace said. “The next week will be an experience of a lifetime for these kids, and that’s what I’m thinking about. We’ve got to understand we have to be hungry next Saturday and play the best game we’ve played all year to have that opportunity.”

This will be UNA’s 10th semifinal appearance in program history and will be the fourth under Wallace. In Wallace’s previous three semifinals from 1993-95, the Lions went 3-0 and won national championships the following game.

“It’s been a long time for me,” Wallace said. “It’ll be a great experience to have that opportunity to play a game that leads to the national championship game.”

Shepherd comes in to the semifinal game with a 13-0 record, which includes wins against three undefeated schools. The Rams were last year’s runner up, losing to Northwest Missouri State 34-7 in the 2015 championship game.

While Shepherd comes off a dramatic 41-30 win over California (PA), UNA will look to continue its dominance against playoff teams. Through two games, the Lions outscored its opponents by a combined 79-17, including last week’s 38-0 shutout of North Greenville.

Senior quarterback Jacob Tucker, a Harlon Hill finalist, will face Shepherd’s senior quarterback Jeff Ziemba. Ziemba is also one of nine finalists for the trophy and is the only player returning from last year’s candidates.

“I’ve though about (facing Ziemba) a little bit, but not a whole lot,” Tucker said. “Around this time of year, this is where the great players are exposed. I know he’s had a great season, but so has our defense. It’ll be a fun showdown to watch.”

The defense, which allows a conference-low 13.4 points per game, will face an offensively sound Shepherd offense averaging nearly 41 points per contest. UNA counters with a similar total, scoring 40.3 point on average.

Junior safety Dorsey Norris said the defense is up for any challenge, especially after last week’s shutout performance.

“Our goal each week is to minimize the points that we allow and to give our offense the best opportunity to win the game,” Norris said. “Shutting (North Greenville) out was great. I think that was our second shutout of the year, and to do it this late in the playoffs is great for us.”

In the other semifinal game, top-seeded Northwest Missouri State will host Ferris State (Michigan), a two-loss team from Super Region 4. NWMSU is undefeated this season and has not lost a game since the 2014 playoffs.

The winner of each game advances to the 2016 Division II National Championship game, which will be Dec. 17 in Kansas City, Kansas.

Norris said UNA is ready to play whoever is in front of them, but the team will not rest until they reach the final goal.

 “I think for us, our hard work is starting to show, but we’re nowhere near satisfied,” he said. “(Winning) 38-0 is a great score for us. But, we’re not playing on Dec. 17, and we don’t have that national championship banner in our gym yet.”