In many ways, when Minnesota State-Mankato takes on Colorado State-Pueblo at 3 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA Division II football championship, it will see a mirror image of itself.
Both teams are playing in their first national championship game. They each have suffered disappointing playoff losses in recent years. They like to run. They play bone-crushing defense. Their records are nearly identical. Mankato is 14-0, and Pueblo is 13-1.
“You want to talk about a great matchup for us and for them,” said Mankato coach Todd Hoffner. “You have two teams that pride themselves on physicality and playing hard-nosed football. You cannot ask for a better setting for both football programs.”
Oh, and what a setting it will be for the two teams, the first to play a football game at Sporting Park, home of the Sporting Kansas City soccer team. After 28 years in Florence, Ala., the championship game has moved this year to Kansas City, Kan.
During a Thursday evening news conference, players for both teams said they liked what they saw at the stadium, and that was with the field covered. The bright scoreboard that highlighted both teams and the NCAA logo stood out as it turned dark outside.
“It is going to be wonderful,” Mankato senior defensive end Joshua Gordon said. “I have never played in a stadium like this. It is spectacular. I didn’t look at any pictures before because I wanted to experience it when I walked in.”
Because this is the first trip to the national title game for both teams, they never got an opportunity to experience Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence.
But both sure came close.
“In my mind, we are late arriving,” Pueblo coach John Wristen said. “I wanted to find a bunch of kids and coaches who wanted to check egos at the door and go to work and enjoy this game. I am lucky.”
Pueblo senior wide receiver Paul Browning said the Thunderwolves started thinking about reaching this point when they lost last year in the playoffs.
It didn’t matter to them that they had more injuries than the previous year or entered the playoffs with a loss, as opposed to being undefeated last year.
“From last year’s loss to Grand Valley State, that was the point where we said we can’t have this anymore,” Browning said. “Now we have to finish it.”
Mankato’s Mavericks also have plenty of seniors who experienced a few tough playoff losses. In 2012, Mankato lost in the semifinals to Valdosta State, which went on to win the national title.
“Finally overcoming that last game to get here was really something,” said Mavericks senior offensive lineman Chris Reed. “The atmosphere in the locker room was an incredible feeling to reach this point.”
Mankato plays in the same region as Northwest Missouri State and Pittsburg State, two teams that Division II fans in Kansas City are very familiar with. Northwest Missouri won the national title last season, and Pittsburg State won it in 2011.
The Mavericks needed overtime to beat Pittsburg State in the second round this year.
“Our region has prepared us for worse situations,” Reed said. “The game against Pitt State went down to the wire. Playing in those situations has prepared us for this game.”
All Mankato’s Hoffner has to do is look at what Pueblo did in its second game to realize his team is in for a battle. The Thunderwolves took a 47-21 victory over Sam Houston State, which lost to North Dakota State 35-3 on Friday night in the FCS semifinals. The FCS is a level above Division II.
“The respect level is high,” Hoffner said.
It is a mutual feeling.
“Their defense is sound,” Wristen said. “They run the football. They play hard consistently. That is what jumps out.
“Really, what is most impressive is how their lines get off the line of scrimmage. It is going to be a fun game.”
Division II football championship
WHO: Minnesota State-Mankato, 14-0, vs. Colorado State-Pueblo, 13-1
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
TICKETS: Regular adult tickets start at $20 and are available through Ticketmaster.