FLORENCE, Ala. — Parker Murray epitomizes Lenoir-Rhyne football this season.
He’s undersized for his position, he works to make those around him better and he can change positions and responsibilities on a moment’s notice.
Saturday, he and his teammates will receive the ultimate reward for their work – the opportunity to play for a national championship.
Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1) makes its first appearance in the NCAA Division II national championship game, where it will face Northwest Missouri State (14-0) at noon at Braly Municipal Stadium (ESPN2).
It’s likely that the Bears will be viewed as underdogs. Northwest Missouri State is making a record eighth appearance in the title game and has won three national titles, most recently in 2009.
Being the underdog hasn’t stopped Lenoir-Rhyne’s charge through the playoffs, which has included wins over traditional powers North Alabama and West Chester (Pa.).
“It’s just such an awesome thing, especially for the guys like me who have been here the past four or five years, to have this opportunity,” said Murray, the Bears’ 6-foot-2, 270-pound senior center.
“We came into the year having won back-to-back (South Atlantic Conference) titles and then we lost our first game to Concord (W.Va.). I think we were looking around at each other and wondering, ‘What is going on here?’ ”
“We got into the season, played like we knew we could, and now we’re playing for a national title.”
During his career with the Bears, and especially this season, Murray – a former high school standout from Ninety Six – has filled in when necessary due to injuries on the offensive line.
“I came here as a guard, maybe a tackle – I don’t really know now. The first year I moved around a lot,” Murray said. “My second year, I started some at tackle. Most recently I’ve gone from guard to center.
“It’s not a huge deal. I’ve gotten used to it.”
This year in particular, Murray has had to be especially adaptable. He is now snapping the ball to the third different quarterback this season.
Original starter Miles Freeman went down late in the year with a season-ending lower leg injury. Three games later, Freeman’s backup, Teverrius Jones, suffered a neck injury. Since then, Murray has been working with Josh Justice, who began the year as the third string quarterback and has seen action in just eight games in his career.
“I’ve worked with all three of those guys in practice the last three years. There’s been no transition at all,” Murray said. “I know when Josh came in to get a few snaps in the Carson-Newman game (on Nov. 2), we took one snap and that was it. We were good to go.”
Murray said having an experienced line has made it much easier to make adjustments on the fly.
“With all the work we put in from camp and spring ball, all the work we’ve put in together and how long we’ve been together, we just mesh really well,” he said. “When we look across the line of scrimmage, we don’t believe the person across from us has put in quite as much as we have.
“To make the championship as a senior with a bunch of guys who have put everything they have into this program is really something special.”
Repeatedly this season Bears coach Mike Houston has pointed out this year’s team is unlike any other he’s coached during his career, whether college or high school.
“They are all-in – all-in to our schemes, to us as coaches, to each other. They know we trust them and they trust us,” Houston said.
He believes that cohesiveness, and the willingness of each player to embrace their respective roles, has played a large part in the team’s success.
“They don’t care about who gets the credit or the glory – they care about winning,” Houston said. “They care about doing what they can for each other.
“It has been a special thing to watch. That trust and tightness is such a hard thing to create on a team and we’re very blessed to have it.
“And because of those things, they fully expect to go out and win on Saturday.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.