Lions win conference, host Newberry in playoffs

Senior running back Lamonte Thompson (24) weaves through defenders during UNA’s 52-14 victory over West Alabama on Preview Day Nov 14. The Lions won their third straight Gulf South Conference championship and will host Newberry in the first round of the playoffs Nov. 21.

by Sports Editor Mike Ezekiel

For the third straight year, players and coaches rushed the field in celebration after winning the Gulf South Conference championship Nov. 14.

With its 52-14 victory over rival West Alabama, the UNA football team shares the 2015 conference championship with West Georgia, finishing the regular season 8-2 (6-1 GSC).

The Lions’ conference three-peat marks the second such streak in school history, with the first consecutive string coming in 1993-95. The 1995 Lions, who also won the national championship, were in attendance for the West Alabama game.

“Our consistency over the three-year period has been remarkable,” said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace. “I’m real proud of this group. They’re so similar to the last group to do it in ’95 with their academics and leadership.”

The Lions found out Nov. 15 they will host Newberry in the first round of the playoffs, beginning Nov. 21. West Georgia earned the top seed in Super Region two, followed by UNA, Catawba, Valdosta State, Carson-Newman, Tuskegee and Newberry.

Wallace said the final standings did not surprise him.

“Our region is pretty cut and dry,” he said. “Newberry is really who everyone assumed would get the seventh seed. We saw them (on film) against Florida Tech at the beginning of the year. They’re very good and even beat Florida Tech.”

After falling short to Valdosta State in the first round of last year’s playoffs, junior quarterback Jacob Tucker said redemption is inevitable.

“We got knocked out a little prematurely last year,” Tucker said. “That’s just extra motivation going into the playoffs. Seeing (the selection show) point out (how good) all the other teams from other regions are and not our region gives us a little startup juice. This is a good year for us to go a long way.”

If the Lions advance past Newberry, they will face the winner of Catawba and Tuskegee, both of which did not play UNA this season. While Wallace is happy to play someone new and outside the GSC, he said it will be a challenge to study an unusual opponent with a short amount of time to prepare.

“We usually get rematches with GSC teams (in the playoffs), but we escaped that this year,” Wallace said. “If we can get to the last region game, we may get to rematch with a GSC team, but the first two will not be against someone we’ve already played. It will be a lot more interesting.”

With UNA’s two losses coming on the road, nobody has beat the Lions inside Braly Stadium in 2015. Sophomore wide receiver Dre Hall said hosting in the playoffs gives the team a confidence boost.

“Hosting is a big thing during the playoffs,” Hall said. “The fans are what help the most. We like having the fans support us.”

Hall’s teammate, senior linebacker Antonio Curry, said having a home crowd of 10,000 not only encourages the Lions but also distracts opposing teams.

“Our crowd is great,” Curry said. “It really feels like we have a 12th man out there on the field. Anytime you can get a home playoff game, it’s an advantage. ”

Curry said the key to a championship run in the postseason is to continue moving forward.

“Those losses were a test of our character,” he said. “When you lose games, it’s in the past. It’s what you do next that counts. We showed our perseverance winning the conference championship. We need to continue that going into the playoffs.”

The first round playoff game against Newberry kicks off at noon Nov. 21 inside Braly Stadium.