KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Only a handful of schools make up the list of NCAA Division II national champions and runners-up, but on Dec. 20, there will be two names added to the record books that have never been there before.
The championship will pit undefeated Minnesota State-Mankato against 13-1 Colorado State-Pueblo, both second-seeded teams from this year’s bracket.
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CSU-Pueblo head coach John Wristen looked ahead to the game and described his players’ attitudes in practice.
“It was pretty evident to me that the kids were really excited to have this opportunity. We should be,” Wristen said. “It’s the last game of the year and you’ve got the chance to go play for something really special that you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little kid. So it’s exciting times around here.”
MSU-Mankato head coach Todd Hofner looked back at his team’s undefeated regular season and tournament run.
“The guys are very determined and have persevered through difficult games all season long, with us down or tied in three games this year at halftime,” Hofner said. “Our determination and perseverance have definitely shone through and helped us win those football games.”
MSU-Mankato defeated Minnesota-Duluth in the quarterfinals. Minnesota-Duluth had knocked off both defending champion Northwest Missouri State and first-seeded Ouachita Baptist before falling 44-17 to MSU-Mankato.
MSU-Mankato went on to defeat Concord, the top seed in the other half of the bracket, 47-13. The Mavericks also beat powerhouse Pittsburg State in the second round.
“I thought we had a strong amount of resistance to Pitt State,” Hofner said. “With the other two games, it’s a combination of a lot of things, we could be peaking, we could be getting our training cycle peaked, we could be mentally focused and excited about getting to the big dance.”
So far in this tournament, Mankato has generated 1,373 yards of total offense to Pueblo’s 937.
The ThunderWolves advanced to the championship with a tight, low-scoring 10-7 win against sixth-seeded West Georgia.
“Every playoff game is a game where you’ve just got to find a way to survive and advance. Our guys found a way on Saturday [against West Georgia],” Wristen said. “Statistics weren’t always in our favor but you’re not judged by statistics, you’re judged by you wins and losses, so I think when you can win a ball game like that it’s a good step because you gain a little confidence when you go through.”
The balanced MSU-Mankato team ranks above CSU-Pueblo in almost every offensive statistic, but will have its hands full getting through a strong ThunderWolves defense. Pueblo defensive end Darius Allen has recorded six sacks in the tournament for a team that has allowed the fewest amount of points in the tournament with 49 across all three games.
“I think this team is very confident and very excited about playing for the national championship,” Wristen said as he looked ahead to the weekend. “We’ve done well in the playoffs and we’re a very good football team,” said Hofner. “I’m really looking forward to this weekend.”