KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) When Northwest Missouri State coach Adam Dorrel gathered his players for an end-of-the-season meeting in January, he went through the depth chart and delivered some sobering news.
''From a depth standpoint, experience, we're looking at being 7-4 this year,'' he recalls saying.
Fourteen wins later, the Bearcats are one away from another championship. The four-time Division II titleholders will make the short trip from their campus in Maryville to Sporting Park on Saturday to face championship newcomer Shepherd of West Virginia in what should be a full stadium.
''I'm proud of our kids,'' Dorel said. ''When I told them that in January, I really think our guys used it as a rallying cry. I think they believed it, and I believed it at the time. So to see these guys put in the amount of work they have since January is awesome.''
Not many people outside the program probably believed it.
The Bearcats won 10 games a year ago, even though they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. They won the national championship with a 15-0 record the previous season. And you have to go back to 2001 - two national championships, four runner-up finishes ago and a change in head coach ago - to find the last time the program won seven or fewer games.
In other words, even those players in the Northwest Missouri State locker room that January day thought it was a bit far-fetched that Dorrel was warning them about a 7-4 record
''To be honest, we were like, `Did you believe that? 7-4?'' said quarterback Brady Bolles, part of the 2013 national title team. ''But we kind of took it to heart. We bought in. We said, `You know what? We're not going to be 7-4. We're going to be better than that.'''
It hasn't always been easy. The Bearcats had to rally against Central Missouri, and again the next week against Central Oklahoma, relying each time on the nation's best defense. But once the Bearcats' offense began to gel, there were few close calls the rest of the way.
Northwest Missouri State beat West Georgia 38-23 in the national semifinals.
''We're very unselfish,'' Dorrel said ''Every year you have a little different identity. What really resonates with me is they love each other and play for each other, and play very hard.''
The Bearcats (14-0) aren't the only ones who have been playing the underdog card.
Shepherd (13-0) was a longtime NAIA member that transitioned to Division II in 1994, and reached its first postseason just four years later. But it wasn't until 2010 that coach Monte Cater guided them to the national semifinals, and it wasn't until this year - his 29th at the school nestled along the Potomac River - that they have made it to the final weekend of the season.
''We only have 10 seniors that are playing, a couple more guys at backup positions,'' Cater said. ''A lot of people asked, `Is this the kind of year you can reach those types of heights?'
''Since then, we've been an underdog ever game we've played this postseason,'' he added.
Shepherd squeaked past Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the first round on the strength of its defense, then beat Slippery Rock to set up a semifinal with perennial power Grand Valley State. Despite losing star quarterback and Harlon Hill finalist Jeff Ziemba to an injury on their first possession, the Rams rallied around backup Connor Jessup for a 34-32 victory.
''You lose a Harlon Hill finalist so early in the ballgame, you're looking for the next guy to stand up,'' Cater said. ''Connor really stepped up, and the surrounding cast really lifted us too. Just a great example of someone being able to go in there and help their teammates win.''
The Rams will need to rely on the same moxie on Saturday, when they play what amounts to a road game against one of the nation's top programs in an attempt to win their first championship.
''We don't really look at it as a challenge,'' Rams fullback Jon Hammer said. ''We're used to a packed house, like hopefully we'll have Saturday. We're used to playing when it's loud. Hopefully we'll have a lot of fans behind us, too.''