The UNA football team is currently preparing for its first Division I game following the official joining of the Big South Conference in July 2018. Now, the team will be fighting in a league it has never set foot in. These schools are larger, have more money and a wider selection of players due to their size and notoriety. None of that matters in the heads of the Lions.
“You can’t really tell the difference whether it’s DI or D2 with these guys,” said head coach Chris Willis. “The way they look at it, it’s just football. We’re outside, we’re getting to do something we love to do. It doesn’t matter about the opponent or the classification.”
The players show high energy and excitement, even though the team is weeks away from their first game. Before practice, players huddled up and pumped each other up for another day on the field, as well as different players leading group chants once practice began. That energy will be necessary to face down their toughest opponents to date.
Of the 11 games scheduled, Willis is only worried about two, the season kickoff game against Southern Utah and the third game against North Dakota State. He believes those two will be difficult, but says his team can win against any opponent if they play right.
“I don’t like to sit here and say we’re gonna win, but we’ve got a lot of talent here and we’ve got a chance,” Willis said. “Last year we did not stay healthy enough and just had too much that went against us. If we can stay healthy this year and get good quarterback and offensive line play, we’ll win some games.”
In every sport, the attitudes of the players affect the team. For a machine to function properly, all parts must be moving properly and in sync. For a team to function properly, all players must be working together toward the same goal.
“I feel like we’re gonna do well,” said senior offensive lineman Cole Hardin. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are really explosive, and they do a good job. I think there’s a new excitement in the locker room. Guys are excited to play at this level.”
His mentality is shared by his teammate and fellow senior offensive lineman Devin McCallister. He is a transfer student from North Dakota State, where he played on their team and has experience on the field with one of UNA’s biggest opponents.
“I know we’re the underdog in a lot of things, but we’re gonna surprise all these Division I schools we’re about to play,” McCallister said. “Out of all the teams I’ve been with, this is one of the scariest I’ve been a part of. I’ve been a part of some offenses that were putting up 70 points a game, and I can see ours putting that up too. Our defense, in my opinion, is so good it’s only going to make us better.”