GAFFNEY, S.C. (courtesy limestone.edu) — After taking care of business in Virginia on Saturday, all the Limestone University football team and coaching staff could do on Sunday was… wait.
The Saints rolled past Emory & Henry College 47-29 on the road in Saturday’s regular season finale to improve to 8-3 overall and 8-1 in the South Atlantic Conference. It would be more than 24 hours later before the Saints would find out if winning eight out of their last nine games would be enough to propel them into the NCAA Division II National Championship Playoffs for the second straight year.
It was enough, and then some.
During the playoff selection show that aired at 6 p.m. Sunday, it was announced that Limestone earned the No. 6 seed in Super Region Two and will travel to No. 3-seed Valdosta State in the first round this Saturday, Nov. 18, at 1 p.m. The top seven teams from each Super Region advance into the post-season and Limestone jumped from No. 8 to No. 6 following the win at Emory & Henry.
The Saints gathered up their locker room Sunday to watch the selection show and learn their playoff fate. The room erupted into cheers and applause as Limestone’s name popped up on the screen.
“It’s like the worst day of your life as you try to find out all day if you’re in or you’re out,” said Saints head coach Mike Furrey on Monday during his weekly “Saints Huddle” show on FloSports and WZZQ. “We stuck to our schedule (Sunday) and then we sat in our locker room and watched our team get drawn for this year’s playoffs.
“We might have had the hardest schedule in the entire world this year, and it just keeps getting harder as we keep going,” Furrey added with a chuckle as he looks toward facing a Valdosta State team that is a perennial powerhouse in NCAA Div. II football. “Valdosta State’s tradition and history, what they have done in the past, and the success they have had in the Gulf South (Conference), is a tremendous opportunity for us to play against one heck of a football team.”
Valdosta State is currently 10-1 and finished 7-1 in the Gulf Coast to earn a share of the program’s 10th conference title. The Blazers qualified for the NCAA postseason for the 19th time in program history and are currently 29-14 in post-season action. VSU has played in six national championship games, winning titles in 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2018. The 29 victories in the playoffs are good for fifth all-time in NCAA Division II and third-most among current NCAA Division II institutions. Saturday’s contest against Limestone will mark the ninth-straight home football playoff game for Valdosta State (excluding national championship games). The Blazers are 20-7 all-time at home in the postseason.
In last weekend’s 58-28 rout of West Georgia, VSU junior quarterback Sammy Edwards went 28-of-42 passing for 383 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Defensively, graduate defensive back Jacob Harris finished with 14 tackles and one tackle for a loss, while three different Blazers had interceptions, including a pick-six.
“Their quarterback is unbelievable, they’ve got a lot of speed, and their defense causes so much chaos,” Furrey said about VSU. “But you know what, this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been preparing for it, so we don’t have any excuses. On the NCAA conference call (Monday) morning, we were both referenced as ‘you have both been here before.’ So that expedited the meeting a little bit. It makes you realize that this is not our first rodeo now. We know what it’s like. We know it’s just a football game and we don’t have to go in and make it any bigger than that – which I thought we did a little bit last year going down to West Florida.”
The Saints finished the 2022 season 8-4 overall following a first-round playoff loss at West Florida.
Many of the same players who were a part of Limestone’s winless squad in 2021 are now enjoying back-to-back playoff runs after going a combined 16-6 overall in the regular season and 15-3 in the South Atlantic Conference the past two years combined. Saturday’s showdown in Georgia will mark the Saints’ 100th game for a program that started in 2014. Limestone won a collective total of 17 games from that first season through 2021 and have now captured 16 combined victories in the two most recent seasons.
“It’s crazy,” Furrey said about the two-year turnaround. “I am just so happy for our kids. You look out there at Chandler Matthews, Dylan Reeves, Dustin Noeller, Tre Stewart, J.J. Martin, and others – these guys have been around the block here a little bit at Limestone University. Three years ago, they were 0-9, and now they are 16-6, back-to-back Piedmont Division co-champs, and are making back-to-back (playoff appearances).
“Our guys bought in to what our coaching staff imprinted here a couple of years ago,” Furrey added. “For these kids to believe in that, execute that, and to build the culture that they’ve built, is remarkable. And there are new guys who haven’t been here and didn’t go through that. But the core of our team are the kids who experienced the 0-9 season. I am just so happy for them to be able to accomplish this. These are the things you talk about for a long time and for our kids to be able to experience this is going to be a great opportunity. We’ve got to get prepared, get to practice, and get ready to play a ball game on Saturday at 1 o’clock.”
Against Emory & Howard, Stewart rushed for 132 yards on 14 carries with one touchdown. The junior became the first running back in program history to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground in back-to-back seasons, finishing the regular season with 1,289 yards and nine touchdowns. A senior signal caller, Noller completed 19-of-26 passes for 316 yards and a school record five touchdowns against Emory & Henry. Noller has amassed 2,704 yards through the air this year to go along with 26 touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Jelani Baker leads the Saints’ receiving corps with 70 catches for 1,030 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the first receiver in the history of the program to surpass the 1,000-yard mark.
Matthews, a junior linebacker, leads the Limestone defense with 78 total tackles.
The Saints plan to keep things business as usual going into Saturday’s playoff contest.
“We will head down Friday just like we normally do for a regular season (road) game and wake up Saturday morning and have some breakfast, do a walk through, head to the stadium, and see if we can play some Limestone football,” Furrey said.
The Blazers play their home games at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, an 11,000-seat venue that is also the home field for Valdosta High School football.
Tickets are now on sale through the Valdosta State athletics website HERE. The game will also be livestreamed through the NCAA on Hudl.
The winner of Limestone at Valdosta State will meet the winner of No. 7-seed West Florida at No. 2-seed Delta State in the second round of the playoffs. As the No.1 seed, Benedict received a first-round bye. In the other Super Region Two first round game, No. 4-seed Lenoir-Rhyne hosts No. 5-seed Shepherd.