Coach Drew Cronic of sixth-ranked Lenior-Rhyne tried to sum it up best when asked a loaded question about his talented team. Why have the Bears been so dominant this season?
“Wow, that’s a tough one,” he said taking a deep breath. “I’ve been here for almost two years and we basically came in and held the players accountable, showed them that we loved them – and worked the dog-snot out of them.”
The Bears, who are 12-0 for the first time, will take that approach into Saturday’s second round NCAA Division II playoff game against 25th-ranked Carson-Newman at 8,500-seat Moretz Stadium in Hickory. Game time is at 2 p.m., and it will feature the Bears taking on the Eagles (9-2) for the second time this season.
In their first meeting in the South Atlantic Conference regular-season on Oct. 19 the Bears won 36-23 in Hickory.
L-R is chasing its second national championship. In 1960 they became the first school in state history to win a national championship by winning the NAIA title beating Humboldt State 15-14. In 2013 they had a shot at the D-II title but lost in the championship game to Northwest Missouri State 43-28.
Just six years later, and with a different coaching staff, the Bears are knocking on the door again.
There have been just six NCAA or NAIA national championships won by North Carolina schools. There have been L-R’s title in 1960 and Elon won back-to-back NAIA championship in 1980 and ’81 along with Appalachian State winning three straight Division I-AA championships (now Football Championship Subdivision) from 2005 through 2007.
When Cronic was hired after working as the offensive coordinator at Furman, the Bears were coming off 3-8 and 3-7 records. But Cronic went 12-2 last season losing to Valdosta State, the eventual national champions, 61-21 in the quarterfinals.
“We lost our first game of last season with 12 seconds to go, and then we won 12 games in a row,” Cronic said about 2018, “so a lot of things went right and we had some great success quickly.”
This season there’s been no hiding because the Bears were picked to win the SAC, and they did thanks to a balanced offense that begins with the run.
Quarterback Grayson Willingham has set numerous school records and has thrown for 1,859 yards with 23 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Willingham, a 6-for-2 redshirt junior from Matthews, doesn’t mind handing the ball off thanks to a talented duo of running backs in Ameen Stevens (682 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Jaquay Mitchell (618 yards and three touchdowns). Mitchell averages 7.4 yards a carry, and as a team the Bears average 5.2 yards a carry.
“It’s been challenging because we are getting every team’s best shot and while we didn’t have many injuries last season we’ve had more of them this time around,” Cronic said.
One of those key injuries was to free safety Kyle Dugger, an All-America senior who could be a draft pick in the NFL in April. Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220 pound senior, is the only Division II player invited to the Senior Bowl in December.
“Kyle’s going to be drafted and we’ve obviously missed his production,” Cronic said about Dugger, who has been out of action since the win over Carson-Newman, “but I like how the secondary has responded and have really picked up their game here late in the season.”
The Bears average 42 points per game and have allowed just 15 per game. Unlike 2013’s run to the championship game where they were exclusively a running team the Bears are averaging 162 yards per game passing and 274 yards per game rushing.
Helping that running game has been assistant coach Michael Ramseur, who was at Winston-Salem State from 2010 through 2013. Ramseur was the running backs coach for the Rams when they made it to the championship game in 2012.
“Coach Ram has been very good for us, and he’s so experienced,” Cronic said.
Cronic said having other experienced coaches with winning backgrounds has been a key to the turnaround. In going 24-2 over the last two seasons, there’s a lot to be proud of, Cronic said.
“Our offensive line coach (Bob Bodine) was at Georgia Southern when they were winning championships and Jimmy Long (the defensive line coach) was a player and team captain for that 2013 team at Lenior-Rhyne, so we’ve got a lot of guys who bring that winning mindset,” Cronic said.
Defensively, the Bears are led end Jaquan Artis, a candidate for the Harlon Hill Trophy given to the best player in Division II. Artis, who is a senior from Kinston, has 12 sacks and has been in on 65 tackles helping the Bears rank sixth in the nation in rushing yards allowed at 77 per game.
Linebackers Clayton Horn (70 tackles and four sacks) and Sharrod Williams (59 tackles) along with safety Eric Jackson (three interceptions) have been key all season for defensive coordinator Joel Taylor.
Cronic says the Bears have around 30 scholarships, which he says is about the norm in the SAC. As for facing Carson-Newman again, he says there’s plenty of familiarity.
“We’ve seen them and they have seen us, obviously,” Cronic said. “We know each other pretty well, but there will be some tweaks here and there with each of us hoping to get an edge.”
As for the history the Bears are chasing, Cronic says looking too far ahead will get you in trouble.
“We’re just concentrating on Saturday’s game,” he said.