After a few years of domination in the NCAA Division II football championship by local powerhouse Northwest Missouri State, there was some new blood at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday.
Whether it was juke moves by receivers and returners or high-arching passes by touted quarterback Luis Perez, Texas A&M-Commerce controlled most of the game against West Florida.
Now the Lions will take their first Division II title back to Texas after a 37-27 victory against the Argonauts.
“They have always overcome, that’s what you have to do in the playoffs is overcome adversity, and this team has done it time and time again,” Texas A&M-Commerce coach Colby Carthel said.
Texas A&M-Commerce (14-1) came out firing with all its offensive weapons, including star quarterback Perez, who amassed 323 yards and two touchdowns.
Perez, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy winner as Division II’s top player this week, showed why with his efficient passing in going 23 for 30. He also threw a beautiful deep ball for wide receivers to run underneath for big plays.
One of the more impressive ones was a 40-yard touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter to Marquis Wimberly that extended the Lions’ lead once again.
“The defense was playing soft and I was able to just find open guys and get them the ball in space,” Perez said.
Speedster Shawn Hooks displayed some dynamic quickness, including a 50-yard TD reception. He ended up leading the team with 104 receiving yards.
Hooks and other receivers allowed Perez a chance to break the Division II postseason passing record with 1,570 yards and amass 5,000 yards for the 2017 season.
All the accolades — including the Harlon Hill Trophy — have made for quite a week for Perez.
“This is a moment you dream of,” Perez said. “Winning the Harlon Hill, graduating and winning the national title in the same week, you can’t script it any better. Coach told us we were a team of destiny and we believed it and ran away with it.”
The Lions’ speed and precision was not just through the passing game. Reggie Kincade juked his way through West Florida on a 99-yard kickoff return that tied the longest in Division II history.
“Coming out, Coach told us we needed to get our blocks. We knew we were going to return one because we’ve breaking them for a good amount,” Kincade said.
On the ground, Carandal Hale and EJ Thompson kept the defense honest with strong runs and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Hale did not play in the second half but managed 67 yards. Thompson carried the load with 97 yards and a touchdown.
West Florida (11-4), which was competing in just its second season of football at any level, showed heart despite struggling to find a rhythm on the offensive side. Beaudry was under pressure a good portion of the game but managed to complete 22 of 48 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown.
Argonauts coach Pete Shinnick remembers when his team was just doing scrimmages in 2015 against each other, and now they are in this position.
The Argonauts are proud of the progress they have made at the infancy of their program.
“It was brutal,” he said. “It was rough and to be able to come out of that and come out close, believing in each other, that’s what propelled us here. We have a group that believes that trust and wants to get better every day.”
The Lions outgained the Argonauts 487-286.
As Texas A&M-Commerce enjoyed the glow of winning its first football national championship since 1972 — one as an NAIA member — the Lions realized what a journey it has been to get back to this point.
“We’re really proud of this team, but we’re really proud to represent the Lone Star State, and bringing a national championship home to Texas is special and that was big for us,” Carthel said.