Finishing the college football season as one of the top four teams of the nation is a rare accomplishment. The Concord University football team deserves praise for fighting its way to that unprecedented level.
Enthusiasm grew throughout the fall as the Mountain Lions roared to an 11-0 record and a spot in the NCAA Division II national playoffs. Attendance swelled for their home games at June O. Shott Field in Callaghan Stadium. Alumni proudly took to social media to proclaim their pride.
It took an overtime session to finish out an undefeated regular season last month on the home turf of a powerful opponent, Shepherd University.
With that victory, Concord won its first football crown in its two-year-old league, the Mountain East Conference. It also clinched the top playoff berth in Super Region One of NCAA Division II athletics.
For the first time in school history, CU hosted NCAA football playoff games on the Athens campus, beating two Pennsylvania powerhouses to claim its first Super Region One title. Neither contest was easy — both of Concord’s opponents had lost just one game this year prior to their visit to Athens.
Those wins vaulted the Mountain Lions into the national semifinals last Saturday, where their season ended with a loss to another 13-0 team, Minnesota State-Mankato. That team, playing on its home turf, earlier had been voted the best in Division II in a pair of national polls.
Individual national awards, including all-America honors, have also been bestowed on members of the Concord team. That is another by-product of a winning program.
Just six years ago, the Mountain Lions lost all 11 of their games, recording a losing season for the 10th straight year. With a change in coaches, and a financial commitment from the CU administration, the turnaround began under head coach Mike Kellar in 2009.
One of Kellar’s first hires was Garin Justice, signing on as the offensive line coach. When Kellar left after two seasons, Justice moved into the top job. In four years, he has steered Concord to conference titles twice and his CU teams have won 34 of their 46 games.
He and his staff have brought a steady air of confidence, a keen eye for talent and an unflinching expectation of hard work to the once-pitiful football program.
With successes mounting, a skeptical public has gradually embraced the Mountain Lions again.
There are still people on campus who question the amount of Concord’s institutional budget that is devoted to supporting intercollegiate athletics. That is a legitimate topic for debate, but it is hard to dismiss the increased interest in the university brought by the football team’s success.
Those who worked so hard for a 13-1 season, players, coaches and support staff alike, deserve to be appreciated for their “firm and undaunted” efforts, and for the glory they have brought to Athens.
As it says in the Concord alma mater, “Hats off to you.”