Last year, the Wingate Bulldogs lost to Newberry on the last day of the regular season, costing the team a South Atlantic title and a chance to go to the Division II playoffs.
This season, the Bulldogs decided not to wait until the final week to take care of business.
“I don’t think you could write a better script,” said Joe Reich, in his 17th year as Wingate head coach, “particularly that ninth win.”
The Bulldogs beat Limestone on Homecoming and Senior Day to clinch the conference title and tie the program record for wins in a season. “To win at home to win the conference outright, with the fireworks, the trophy, the whole thing — it was special,” Reich said.
It also earned Wingate a trip to the playoffs for just the second time ever. The Bulldogs play West Florida University at home on Saturday. The Argonauts tied for second place in the Gulf South Conference and travel to Wingate as the No. 6 seed to face the No. 3 Bulldogs.
“We’re doing a cram session on West Florida,” Reich said. “Their coach, Pete Shinnick, was the head coach at UNC-Pembroke (going 50-24 from 2007 to 2013), so we’re familiar with him to a certain extent.”
The Bulldogs will likely be without their starting quarterback, James Whitaker, who went down with a concussion in late October and hasn’t played since.
While Whitaker hasn’t been officially ruled out for Saturday, Reich wasn’t optimistic that he’d be able to play.
“We’ll leave him as a game-time decision at this point,” Reich said, “but I’m saying probably not. We’ll keep the door open a little bit.”
Dylan Williams, a redshirt junior from Whiteville, has filled in for Whitaker and has a higher completion percentage (70.7 to 57.2), more passing yards per game (172.8 to 165.1) and a better passer rating (175.3 to 137.6).
“Dylan has just been phenomenal,” Reich said. “He’s played really well. Last week (a loss to Tusculum that spoiled a perfect 10-0 regular season) wasn’t his best game. He was sick before the game, but he’s such a scrappy, get-it-done kind of guy. He found a way to get us in position, after being down 25, to get in the end zone and tie it up at the end. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do this week.”
Williams is throwing to a very deep group of receivers. Six Bulldogs have at least 16 catches and 226 yards, with no one having more than 23 and 385.
“Over the last few years, we’ve kind of relied on one or two guys, and that handicaps you,” Reich said. “Last year, it was, ‘Throw the ball to Jordan Berry whenever you can, as well as Joe Wallace.’ Now, those guys are gone, and there’s not that one key guy. There’s a lot of guys that do things well. Let’s not worry. Let’s just line them up and play. There’s no one spot to key on, we can throw the ball to any of them.”
B.J. Muckelvene, who leads the team with 385 receiving yards, is also a dangerous return man. He has 352 punt return yards and three touchdowns on the year, to go with 272 yards on kickoff returns.
Like the receiving corps, the Bulldog defense doesn’t have that one standout player opponents can key on. That doesn’t mean there are no star-quality plays. Wingate’s D has 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries on the year. Eight players have interceptions. Eleven have forced or recovered a fumble. Nine have sacks.
Wingate’s opening round opponent could be a mirror image, as Reich has had trouble finding any areas on West Florida to attack.
“They’re a really good team,” he said. “At this point in the year, every team you’re going to play is good. They don’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses. They’re just a solid football team all around.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage will come from Wingate’s higher seed, and NCAA regulations.
The two schools are 596.1 miles apart by highway. For Division II championships, teams that have to travel more than 600 miles can fly to their destination.
“They’re under five miles away from being able to fly,” Reich said. “They have to drive, instead. It’s going to be a brutal trip up there. I’m glad we don’t have to do that.
“We only played four home games this year,” he added. “When the conference redid their schedule, we lost a home game in the transition. So it’s nice to have the fifth home game back after all, as a little reward for our season. And who knows, maybe we’ll have more after that.”
If so, the Bulldogs will be in line for even bigger rewards.