There was a man who came down from the bleachers to congratulate Sterling College football coach Andy Lambert after the Warriors clinched the KCAC title last Saturday with a 36-19 win over Kansas Wesleyan in Salina.
He introduced himself as a member of the 1963 team at Sterling. He told Lambert how proud he was of what the team had accomplished. Then he walked away.
It wasn’t long before another Sterling alumnus walked up with the same message.
“And it just kept coming,” Lambert said. “It was humbling, really, to see the crowd we had (in Salina) because they were big enough and loud enough that they actually changed the momentum of the game. Then, after, my phone is filling up with texts from numbers I don’t even know congratulating us.
“I couldn’t have foreseen this amount of support, this amount of backing.”
Such is the new reality for Lambert and the Warriors, league champions and NAIA playoff bound for the first time in school history, taking on No. 4 Baker (10-1) in Baldwin City at 1 p.m. Saturday. Sterling, which joined the KCAC in 1958, has won eight straight games.
The Warriors are one of three KCAC teams in the NAIA playoffs. No. 11 Tabor (9-2) travels to No. 8 Benedictine (10-1) and No. 15 Ottawa (8-3) plays at No. 2 Grand View (10-0).
Baker, Benedictine and Missouri Valley finished in a three-way tie for first in the Heart of America Athletic Conference.
“We’ve been trying to scrap and fight for one win, every week,” said senior linebacker Kris Lehmann, an All-KCAC pick who leads Sterling with 95 tackles. “And now we’re back in the underdog role, which we really like.”
Sterling’s path to the KCAC title under Lambert wasn’t always clear cut. The 10th-year coach took over a program that had winless seasons in 2002 and 2003.
“Aside from a big influx of funds, the only way to change things on the small-college level, in football, is to build from the ground up,” Lambert said. “It’s not like baseball, where you can bring in a bunch of pitchers, or basketball, where you can bring in one or two guys that can win you games.”
Sterling went 5-5 in Lambert’s first season before six straight winning seasons. Then 1-10 in 2011 and 3-7 in 2012.
“That’s the crazy thing, is we’ve got a lot of the same guys from the last couple of years,” said Lehmann, a Smith Center native. “It’s just that the atmosphere is different.”
The biggest change in the atmosphere has been junior quarterback Reggie Langford, a second-team All-KCAC pick who leads the Warriors in total offense with 2,523 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Warriors aren’t filled with stars — the league champions placed three players on the All-KCAC squad with Lehmann, offensive lineman Kyle Finder and kick returner Antonio Bray, the special teams player of the year.
“We’re a lot more loose this week as a team because last week there was some stress with the conference championship on the line,” Langford said. “It’s a great honor to be in the playoffs and represent the school ... and we’re also glad we’re the team that got a title for (Lambert). He’s the one that brings us all together so it was good to get that monkey off his back.”
NCAA Division II — Emporia State (9-1) is the lone MIAA team playing this weekend, traveling to take on Minnesota-Duluth (10-1) as undefeated league champion Northwest Missouri gets a bye. It’s the first trip to the playoffs for the Hornets since 2003, and they’ll do it without second-team All-MIAA quarterback Brent Wilson, who suffered a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale against Washburn.
Freshman Corben Jones came in for Smith in the fourth quarter against the Ichabods with a 24-16 lead and led Emporia State on two scoring drives. He’ll get the start against Minnesota-Duluth, which won NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.