For the second year in a row, a local football player will take part in the Division II national championship game.
Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1) will play at noon today against Northwest Missouri State in Florence, Ala. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
The starting punter for the Bears is North Surry alumnus Austin Barker, who just graduated back in June.
He follows in the footsteps of Reece Barbour, a Mount Airy graduate who was a long snapper on the Winston-Salem State team that played for the title last year.
Barker, an all-state selection in football and all-conference in tennis, signed with Lenoir-Rhyne last May with the idea that he could compete for a starting spot right away.
When the season began, Barker was designated as a voluntary red shirt. That meant he would practice with the team, but not play all season, and he would retain four years of eligibility going forward.
That plan lasted all of one game. Barker was outperforming the other punters on the team regularly in practice, so the coaches decided to drop the red shirt idea and have him join the squad.
The punter before him had seven tries with an average of 35.1 yards per punt. Since taking the starting spot, Barker has punted 43 times for 1,681 yards, an average of 39.1 yards per try.
That average ranks him tops in the South Atlantic Conference, just ahead of Kyle Clark’s 39.0 for Newberry.
Perhaps more impressive than his distance is that he has punted the ball inside the red zone 13 times, but only once has the ball gone into the end zone for a touchback. He also didn’t have a single punt blocked on the season.
North Surry Coach Danny Lyons said he has been in contact with Austin during this week of preparation. He said the young man is very excited just to be a starter as a freshman, much less playing for a national championship.
This is Lenoir-Rhyne’s first Division II title-game appearance. It’s their first national championship game of any kind since the 1962 team lost to Central Oklahoma State in the NAIA final.
To reach the championship game, the Bears had to beat West Chester (13-1 going in). Featuring a strong running attack, the Bears won 42-14 without attempting a single pass in the muddy conditions in Hickory.
“None of this has sunk in for any of us yet,” Bear coach Mike Houston said after a game where the Bears scored the final 30 points after falling behind 14-12.
“No turnovers. What a phenomenal job of our quarterback, our fullbacks of taking care of the football,” Houston said. “The key to the game was us not turning the ball over, able to control the line of scrimmage, drive the football and make them defend us and what just what a great job by our offensive line and Josh Justice.”
This week, the Lenoir-Rhyne team headed out on the team bus Wednesday morning.
All these fans were there to see the team off, and the police provided an escort out of town, said Barker, a Cedar Ridge native.
The Bears arrived in Florence Wednesday night and has been staying in a hotel.
“We’ve been getting escorted around, I’ve never had that before in my life,” said Barker. “All of our meals are catered.”
One morning some of the guys from the team went to a nearby elementary school and read stories to the young kids.
Lenoir-Rhyne is a small school — only about 1,900 enrollment — so none of these children had ever heard of the school before, but they still asked for autographs, which was flattering, according to the punter.
The Bears come from one of the smallest schools ever to play in the Division II title game. Northwest Missouri State is a bigger school with 6,500 enrollment this year.
“I’ve got a little jitters, but I get that before every game,” Barker said Friday night. “It’s just another game, but on a bigger level.”
Lyons said he wishes he could be in Alabama to see Austin in person, but he will certainly be glued to his TV set today at noon.