Just as soon as a Southwest Airlines steward sealed the chartered 737 jet, the electronic voice of the captain rang out extending an early morning greeting to its passengers. “Welcome Wildcats,” it said firmly. Several passengers began to laugh, at first under their breaths. Others were taken aback.
“We’re the Warriors,” several echoing passengers blurted in light indignation.
Those who were amused wore broad smiles and broke into sarcastic chortles while the captain’s voice stumbled toward an apology. The others seated shook their heads and brushed off yet another slight to Wayne State University.
Unfortunately for the out-of-town crew of the Nov. 25 Detroit Metro flight to Nebraska, they didn’t realize there are two “Wayne States” in athletics. The football team on board, the captain likely reasoned, must be the Wayne State College Wildcats of Wayne, Neb. returning home.
But these “Wildcats” aren’t ready to come home just yet. On what was the eve of the Warriors’ second road playoff win, beating Nebraska-Kearney 38-26, the unranked six-seed from Midtown Detroit is one victory from doing what no one expected.
But that’s not exactly true. Coach Paul Winters and his team knew they’d be playing in the Division II championship game in Florence, Ala. at some point.
“This is something as a head coach, when I recruited these young men, I told ‘em we were going to compete for a national championship,” Winters said following his team’s 21-14 win at Winston-Salem State Dec. 10. “…Next Saturday, we’re competing for a national championship. ‘It’s what I told you was gunna happen.’”
The unranked, three-loss Warriors, according to mass media logic, should have no business in that game. Historically speaking, this is the fourth time it has happened in NCAA Division II playoffs (Northern Colorado, 1996; Northwest Missouri State, 2005; Delta State 2010). And Wayne State joins the unranked 2010 Delta State team to win four times and make it to the final weekend. What gives?
“For fans of college football, it’s ideal,” Winters said. “It’s one of those Cinderella stories, I guess. But for us, we’re very disappointed that we’ve got three loses. we felt like we shouldn’t have lost any games.
“Although it’s a shock to everybody else, we always thought we were pretty good. … We know who we are and we know what we expect to do.”
But it is a shock to everyone involved in some sense. Because of last year, missing the playoffs despite a program-best 9-2 record, and this year, reaching as high as sixth in the nation’s coaches poll, but losing three of its last five contests, it appeared Winters’ team would miss the playoffs again and a chance to keep his promise.
Come the selection show, the Warriors and their coach got their second chance.
“So the story about us now is, really, because of those three loses and because of how everybody looks at us, it’s really easy to motivate this team,” Winters said. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Hey listen, they think you stink, you know. They don’t think you belong here.’ And these guys understand that.”
Perhaps, if not for their current fate, the Warriors at home may not play the same as they do on the road, as an underdog.
“A Warrior has no home,” star safety Jeremy Jones said relaying his team’s current motto. “Wherever we go, we go and make it our home.”
They’ll have to make a home in Florence against another highly ranked opponent in Pittsburg State, Kan (No. 7). This is the 17th time the Gorillas have appeared in the playoffs, tying the record with Northern Alabama. Saturday also marks the fifth time they have played in the championship game (only winning once in 1991), but the first time since 2004. The “David and Goliath” storylines must be overflowing at this point.
“We have nothing to fear no more,” Jones said reiterating something running back Josh Renel said three weeks ago. “If people wanna look over us, we’re fine with that because when we show up to play we play Wayne State football -- put Wayne State on their map, put Detroit on their map.”
Such a map would have gone a long way for that Nov. 25 Southwest plane captain.