The football floated through the cool night air at Braley Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala., and Matt Pawlowski, Grand Valley State's 50-year-old defensive coordinator, sprinted toward it, huffing and wheezing and wild-eyed with fear. With one second left in last Saturday's NCAA Division II national championship game and Pawlowski's Lakers leading Northwest Missouri State, 21-17, Bearcats quarterback Josh Lamberson had heaved a desperation prayer from Grand Valley's 27-yard line toward the end zone. As the ball fell from the sky, the game clock expired. With his dream season in jeopardy, Pawlowski ran down the sideline and onto the field yelling, "Ball! Ball! Ball!" The pass was caught by Northwest Missouri's Raphael Robinson at the four-yard line. The gray-haired Pawlowski didn't make the tackle--but Grand Valley linebacker Kirk Carruth and free safety Joe Ballard did, at the three, thus securing the Lakers' third national title in the last four years.
"I've been coaching for 28 years, and this is the greatest moment of my coaching life," said a winded Pawlowski after his Jim Valvano--esque scramble around the field at the conclusion of play. "This also might be the greatest game I've ever coached in."
This much is certain: No team in any division of college football--not even mighty USC--has been as dominating in the 21st century as Grand Valley State, a school of 21,300 students located in Allendale, Mich., 15 miles from Grand Rapids. By defeating Northwest Missouri, the Lakers, who have played in four of the last five national championship games, completed a perfect 13-0 season. Over the last five years they have a 64-5 record and have outscored their opponents 2,726-1,008.
So what's the secret to their success? Lakers coach Chuck Martin points to the pool of high school talent in the Wolverine State, which he believes is as deep as in any region of the country. "About 95 percent of our kids are from Michigan, which shows you how good the high school football is in our state," he says. "And one of those Michigan kids, [junior quarterback] Cullen Finnerty, is the heart and soul of our team. He's Dick Butkus playing quarterback. I've never seen a player who likes contact more than Cullen."
On Saturday the 6'2", 215-pound Finnerty ran for two touchdowns and tossed a 35-yard score to senior wide receiver Brandon Langston with 4:32 remaining that gave the Lakers their first, and final, lead. It was especially fitting that Langston would be his partner on Grand Valley's decisive offensive play because the two share a common history and so wanted to end their collaboration as champions.
Coming out of Brighton (Mich.) High, 50 miles from Detroit, Finnerty decided to walk on at Division I-A Toledo. When Langston, who attended nearby Northville High, heard that Finnerty was headed to Toledo, he looked up Finnerty's number in the phone book and called to tell him that he was going to walk on with the Rockets as well. The two became fast friends, and even before they left for college, they spent many evenings playing catch in Finnerty's driveway and on the field at Brighton High. "We have such a great feel for one another," says Langston. "We've been tossing the ball around for a long time now."
After redshirting during the 2001 season at Toledo, Finnerty decided to transfer to Grand Valley. "Toledo just didn't feel right to me," he says. From the moment he left in the spring of 2002, he lobbied Langston, who had also redshirted, to join him in Allendale, finally succeeding that summer. (Finnerty would sit out the 2002 season.) When the two hooked up on the game-winning screen pass on Saturday evening, it was the 148th and final time that they would play their game of throw-and-catch in competition.
"Hey, bring on USC or Texas," Finnerty shouted as he walked off the field in Florence. "I'll tell you this: I'm sure glad I transferred to Grand Valley. It's a special place."
With the D-II winner decided, here's what to look for in this week's other NCAA lower-division football championship games.
DIVISION I-AA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Northern Iowa (11-3) versus Appalachian State (11-3)
Friday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m. (ESPN2); Chattanooga
SKINNY: Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns in the Panthers' 40-37 overtime semifinal win at Texas State, but he could find the going tougher against the Mountaineers, who have the country's 15th-ranked pass defense (163.0 yards per game).
DIVISION III CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Mount Union (13-1) versus Wisconsin-Whitewater (14-0)
Saturday, Dec. 17, 1 p.m. (ESPN2); Salem, Va.
SKINNY: Mount Union's stellar rushing defense (86.8 yards per game) will be tested by the No. 1--ranked Warhawks' running back Justin Beaver, the leading rusher in Division III (175.8 yards a game). The Purple Raiders feature running back Nate Kmic, who gained 160 yards in Mount Union's 19-7 semifinal win over Rowan.