NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — They play in near-anonymity at an athletic complex next to a freeway interchange, just a few miles from the home of the Detroit Lions.
Overshadowed by bigger college football programs — not to mention the Motor City’s pro team — the Wayne State Warriors are trying to bring a national championship to Michigan. And this would certainly be an improbable one.
“It’s very surreal,” safety Jeremy Jones said. “It’s gone by so fast.”
Less than a month ago, the Warriors were celebrating their first berth in the Division II playoffs. Three road wins later, they are still playing, in the midst of a magical run that has them two victories from a title.
Wayne State (11-3) plays at Winston-Salem (13-0) on Saturday. Delta State (11-2) faces Pittsburg State (11-1) in the other semifinal, with the title game set for Dec. 17 in Florence, Ala.
This opportunity has been a long time coming for coach Paul Winters. A former assistant at Akron, Wisconsin and Toledo, he took over at Wayne State before the 2004 season. The Warriors went 4-16 his first two years, but he’s had only one losing season since.
Wayne State went 9-2 in 2010 and won its first six games this year, but the Warriors appeared to have wasted their chance at a coveted playoff berth when they lost their regular-season finale to Findlay, 43-42 in overtime.
“Losing the last game, you’re thinking it’s over,” Jones said.
It wasn’t. Not by a longshot.
Wayne State received a playoff berth as the lowest-seeded team in its region. That meant the Warriors would have to play on the road, but at least they were in.
“It really has been an emotional roller-coaster ride,” running back Josh Renel said. “When we finally saw our name on there, it really was a second chance.”
They haven’t looked back, beating St. Cloud State 48-38 and Nebraska-Kearney 38-26, then edging defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth 31-25 to advance to the semifinals. Renel ran for two touchdowns and Jones had three interceptions against Nebraska-Kearney.
A few weeks ago, the idea of taking a plane to a road game was a foreign concept for this team. Now the Warriors head to North Carolina to face Winston-Salem for a spot in the championship game.
The Warriors play in a 6,000-seat venue at the west end of the school’s Detroit campus. Needless to say, this isn’t Michigan or Michigan State. Wayne State’s roster is filled almost exclusively with players from Michigan and Ohio.
Since national recruiting is almost nonexistent, it’s important for Wayne State to keep the players that do join the program.
“Half of my freshman class quit after the first year,” said Renel, a senior. “It’s only gotten better.”
The Warriors brought back nine starters on offense and eight on defense from last year’s successful team.
“The retention rate has been excellent,” Winters said. “That was a big issue. … Walking into the door, we hadn’t been able to do that.”
Now, Wayne State will try to make the most of this unexpected opportunity. There’s a strong tradition of Division II football in Michigan. Central Michigan won a national title before moving to Division I. Northern Michigan, which is still a Division II program, won the national championship in 1975.
More recently, Grand Valley State won four national championships in five seasons from 2002-06, the first two under future Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Wayne State can’t match that kind of success yet, but players and coaches won’t forget this season any time soon — and it’s not over yet.
“It’s hard to talk about what we’ve done,” Winters said. “We’re in the process of doing it.”
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