Win over Valdosta could lock UNCP’s postseason hopes
by Scott Schlaufman Sports Editor
PEMBROKE — As the No. 14 University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team climbed up the rankings of various national polls this season, coach Pete Shinnick tried to downplay the importance.
“We told them from the beginning that that has no bearing on the playoffs,” Shinnick said. “That is a nice deal during the season.”
Nice, sure, but it’s the regional rankings — which determine the 24 playoff contenders for the NCAA Division II playoffs — that matter to the team, and when the first batch came out last week, it gave the Braves an idea how close they are to the school’s second postseason berth in history.
The top six teams in each of the four regions advance, and in both the first and second week’s rankings, the latter released Monday, the Braves were ranked third in Super Region 2.
“Once they saw it, they started to believe,” Shinnick said.
With two weeks left in the regular season, the Braves (7-1) look to control where they go afterwards, starting with Thursday’s penultimate game against Valdosta State. UNCP takes on the unranked but defending national champions in a game that will be televised in select regional markets on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast and broadcast nationally through the ESPN3 web channel.
“We’re basically looking at it as a playoff game,” said UNCP receiver B.J. Bunn. “It’s going to basically determine our seed in the playoffs, so this is the only game we should be worried about.”
It’s a game that could affect the playoffs, win or lose. Five of the top six teams in the region enter this week with only one Division II loss, including UNCP, which lost to Newberry, the No. 2-ranked team in the region.
Nos. 6, 7 and 8 only have two regional losses, and 10th-ranked Valdosta is one of the final two bubble teams, each of which have three losses to D2 teams.
“Our last D2 game of the season, it’s huge for us,” Shinnick said. “If we can take care of business, we’ll be right where we want to be.”
The win won’t come easy.
Not only is Valdosta the defending national champion, but the Blazers were the top ranked team in the country until a loss at West Alabama on Oct. 10. After winning the next week, Valdosta fell out of the national polls with back-to-back losses against North Alabama and Delta State last weekend.
Utilizing a balanced attack, the Blazers have averaged more than 36 points per game, but also allowed 13 interceptions and lost seven fumbles.
The game will also be a change of pace for the Braves, whose only other Thursday game this season was during Week 1.
Preparation started late in Saturday’s 60-20 win against Tusculum, when the starters hit the bench early, and continued Sunday with a light practice.
After Saturday’s win, quarterback Luke Charles was excited for the team’s third televised game this year and getting the NFL experience of a short week.
“Them alone being the national champions, it’s going to be a hyped game,” Charles said. “It’s going to be a good crowd. I don’t know how well (our fans will) travel, but BraveNation will stay strong.”
Even with the spotlight back on the Braves, Charles said the team is aware of the stakes.
“The great thing about this team is having experience and understanding that an 8-2 record, as opposed to a 9-1 record, might not get you into the playoffs,” Charles said. “Our seniors have done a great job of not taking any game for granted and our young guys have followed in those steps very well.
“We’ve just got to stay hungry and every game to us has to be a playoff game.”
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