“The night before the championship, I got a text from Robbie Aurich,” Smith said. “He just wished me luck. He’s working in Chicago right now, so we try to see each other from time to time.”
Aurich won a pair of Division 2 national championships as a middle linebacker with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Now, following Saturday’s thrilling 24-20 victory by St. Xaiver over Carroll (Mont.), Smith can also call himself a national champion.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Smith said Monday morning. “It’s really indescribable. After we won, it really didn’t hit me, but last night and today, it’s started to sink in. It’s a great early Christmas present.”
Carroll had won six out of the past seven national championships at the NAIA level and Smith said St. Xavier players understood — and rallied around — their underdog label.
“Carroll was pretty much a dynasty,” he said. “Since I’ve been there, we’ve made it to the semis my (redshirt) year, then my freshman year, we made it back. And once we got back to the semifinals again this year, we started realizing this was our chance for vindication. The whole year, we played with a chip on our shoulder and we weren’t going out with nothing less than a national championship.”
Smith said the championship game was back and forth, with St. Xavier clinging to a four-point lead in the final seconds. Carroll had a chance for a game-winning touchdown, but its pass on fourth down fell incomplete.
“I was on the sidelines next to our starting left tackle and running back,” Smith said. “We had our arms locked and we couldn’t watch. We were saying a couple prayers.”
Smith, a back-up tight end and fullback at St. Xavier, has appeared in all 15 games for the Cougars this season. He’s also on the team’s kickoff and punt return units on special teams.
He became familiar with the school after he filled out a recruiting brochure and the Cougars’ coaches began to show interest. St. Xavier is located on the southwest side of Chicago.
“I went on a visit and our All-American middle linebacker right now was my host. I just like everything about (the school). It’s far enough (from Chicago) that it still has that small-school feel, but we’re literally a half-hour train ride from being in the big city.”
Smith, a criminal justice and sociology major, is the son of Mike and Cathy Smith of Spring Lake.
Smith’s parents, as well as sister Maggie made the trip to Georgia to share in the championship game experience.
St. Xavier 24, Carroll 20
ROME, Ga. (AP) — Carroll College had lost just once in seven previous title game appearances and it looked as if the Saints were going to pull out another NAIA championship.
St. Xavier, though, had other ideas.
After Carroll drove from its own 18, Dane Broadhead couldn’t connect on four passes after a first down at the St. Xavier 9, dashing the Saints’ hopes of a record-tying seventh NAIA title.
“It hurts to lose when we had a chance like that at the end of the game,” said senior receiver Lat Wipplinger, the target on two of the passes. “It’s definitely disappointing.”
Jimmy Coy accounted for 294 yards and two touchdowns, Mark Williams knocked down a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 2 minutes left and St. Xavier held off Carroll 24-20 Saturday.
St. Xavier (14-1) had to withstand a late pass into the end zone in its 30-27 victory over Marian in the semifinals. Against Carroll (13-2), the Cougars escaped again.
“I don’t have any fingernails left,” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said.
Jared Mayernik returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards to give Carroll its only lead. But the Saints missed the extra point and St. Xavier drove 67 yards to go back ahead on K.J. Franklin’s 4-yard run early in the third quarter.
St. Xavier couldn’t take advantage of a bad punt snap, with Tom Lynch missing a 20-yard field goal attempt midway in the third quarter and it looked as if that might be costly when Carroll drove from its 18 to the St. Xavier 9 late in the fourth quarter. But Broadhead couldn’t connect on four pass attempts, the last one batted down by freshman Williams just before it got to Anthony Hogan.
“I was able to reach around and get one hand on it,” Williams said. “It was close to pass interference, but I didn’t hit him.”
Broadhead, who had just missed on the first three passes, had to scramble on fourth down and try to pick out a secondary receiver.
“Their D-line got good pressure and I didn’t get to see the play like I’d have liked to,” Broadhead said. “I just had to try to find someone the best that I could.”
Coy, a transfer from NCAA Division II Valdosta State, completed 28 of 43 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 78 yards and a score on 16 carries. He was selected the offensive player of the game.
“It’s special to bring this home to Chicago,” said Coy. “This means so much to the players who have been here four or five years. I’m just glad that I could be a part of it.”
The loss kept Carroll from a seventh title, which would have tied the NAIA record held by Texas A&I (now Texas A&M Kingsville). The Montana school was playing in the championship game for the eighth time in 10 years.
St. Xavier linebacker Patrick Appino was selected the defensive player of the game as the Cougars held Carroll’s Chance Demarais, the NAIA player of the year, to 57 yards on 21 carries.
St. Xavier, which didn’t begin football until 1993, had lost in the NAIA semifinals three of the past four years. Once the Chicago school made the title game, the Cougars were determined not to let a chance for their first championship slip away.
“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” Feminis said. “We worked awfully hard for this.”