HICKORY — Justice has been served.
Josh Justice, who began the 2013 season as Lenoir-Rhyne’s third-string quarterback, showed his late-season heroics have been no fluke and neither is his team as the Bears dismantled West Chester (Pa.) 42-14 Saturday at Moretz Stadium in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II football tournament.
Justice, a junior in eligibility and playing in just his eighth game, finished with 175 yards rushing, scored three touchdowns and ran for three two-point conversions.
The Bears (13-1) piled up 451 yards on the ground and didn’t attempt a single pass as the game was played for more than three quarters in a driving rain and temperatures in the 30s.
The final horn warmed the hearts of the Lenoir-Rhyne faithful who braved the elements but their season is not yet over. With the victory, the Bears will play for the Division II national championship next Saturday in Florence, Ala.
“This is just an outstanding day for our football program, for Lenoir-Rhyne University and the city of Hickory,” said Bears coach Mike Houston, in just his third season at LR. “This game exemplified what makes us us.
“It was the worst weather conditions I’ve ever seen a game played in. The footing was tough in the second half and with the cold, the kids were having problems with their hands and feet. I’m sure it was just as bad or worse on the other side.”
Lenoir-Rhyne will face the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Grand Valley State (12-2) and Northwest Missouri State (13-0) in the title game next weekend.
The Bears have never played for a Division II national title but did win the NAIA football title in 1960, a banner for which still hangs prominently at Moretz Stadium.
“This team has developed a tremendous mental toughness. We are not a soft group of football players,” Houston said. “That was the key to the second half – our mental and physical toughness versus theirs.
“Our kids focused on what they had to do – not focused on conditions, not focused on the weather, just on what they had to do play after play after play.”
Lenoir-Rhyne, which relies on the triple option offense, stuck to its game plan and turned to Justice repeatedly in the second and third quarters on quarterback keepers to pick up significant yardage.
“I was pretty nervous week in my first start last week against North Alabama but it’s just been some crazy and awesome stuff that has been happening in the last few weeks,” said Justice, who won a state championship at Belmont South Point High.
“This is just a tight-knit team and that has made this so much fun. It’s not about individual accomplishments. Everything we do we do as a team.”
Justice’s 2-yard run and 2-point conversion gave the Bears a 20-14 lead with eight minutes, 10 seconds left in the first half. O’neil Blake’s interception set up a touchdown run by Isaiah Whitaker that left Lenoir-Rhyne up 26-14 at halftime.
The Bears’ defensive effort dramatically slowed one of Division II’s high-powered offenses. West Chester (13-2) came into the game averaging 479.2 yards of offense and 39.3 points per game. The Golden Rams were shut out in the second half.
“It was a tough day and a disappointing end to a great season,” said West Chester coach Bill Zwaan. “The conditions were horrible for both teams.
“Those were the stakes we were playing – a game as big as that in those conditions. But that’s the way it goes.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.