ASU running back Darryl Carey was one of seven Rams seniors who were emotional after Saturday’s stunning loss to Miles that looked like it would end their season. But the Rams got great news Sunday when they found out they’d still made the Division II postseason, which begins this weekend at North Greenville. (Herald file photo)
ALBANY -- Teary eyed and with his shoulders slumped, Antorio Wells stepped out of the locker room first, too distraught to answer questions about what had just happened.
Like the other six Rams seniors, Wells thought his football career was over.
After all, when Albany State loaded up the bus and drove straight home from Atlanta after losing in the SIAC Championship game to Miles last Saturday, no one was even thinking about the playoffs.
WHO: Albany State (8-3) at North Greenville (9-2).
WHAT: Opening round of the Division II playoffs, first meeting between Albany State and North Greenville.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Tigerville, S.C.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
"After Saturday, everybody was at their lowest of lows," Wells said after practice Tuesday. "And then on Sunday afternoon you get the phone call."
Some heard the news through a phone call -- others by text messages or Twitter. But the messages were all the same.
"We're going to the playoffs," Wells said Tuesday with a smile.
Many had counted the Rams out of the Division II playoffs with a loss against a mediocre Miles team that they had handled in the regular season, but when the NCAA selection committee announced that Albany State would make the playoffs for the eighth straight year via the earned access rule, the Rams' mood quickly changed.
ASU (8-3) is a No. 6 seed and will travel 330 miles to Tigerville, S.C., to play host North Greenville (9-2), the No. 3 seed, which made the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history.
On Tuesday, Wells looked back at that moment when he walked out of the locker room Saturday not knowing if he would ever play another college football game.
"There were a lot of teary eyes. Everybody was getting ready to go home and face the music," he said. "I couldn't eat or drink anything on the way back. You just sit right there and think."
Senior quarterback Stanley Jennings said that bus ride back started quiet and somber before the players started to say their good byes to each other.
"At the end we realized that it was over. We were thanking each other for having a good season and doing what good teammates do," said Jennings, the two-time SIAC Offensive Player of the Year. "It was a painful feeling, and it lasted the whole day. I think I took three naps on Sunday, and I have never done that before in my life. That's how painful it was."
The loss was tough on everybody at ASU, but Jennings, Wells, running back Darryl Carey, defensive back Rashad McRae, defensive back Jamarkus Gaskins, linebacker Joshua Sampson and kicker Tory Torstenson were the seniors who were dealing with an end to their careers.
Gaskins and Wells were standing on the side of the freeway early Sunday evening waiting for Gaskins' car to be towed when one of the coaches called with the good news.
"We were on the side of the freeway just jumping and happy," Wells said.
Gaskins then immediately went to his Twitter account to spread the word, which is when Carey found out.
"Jay Gaskins tweeted that we were in the playoffs, with a bunch of exclamation marks. I called him, and we went from there," Carey said.
Carey was able to catch Jennings, his roommate, after his final nap and told him their careers weren't over.
"I was jumping up for joy because we got another chance," Jennings said. "I just gave a little fist pump."
And with that, the Rams were back in business. Not even 24 hours had passed between the end of Saturday's game and Sunday's announcement, which gave new life to an ASU team that was full of energy and determination at practice Tuesday.
"It's a second season," Wells said. "I guess you could say it's almost like a new mini camp. It's just a great feeling to have it taken away from you and then given right back."
ASU coach Mike White was virtually the only one not giving up hope on a playoff berth after Saturday's loss, but Wells said his coach didn't talk too much about the possibility of making the playoffs because of the excitement -- and then possible let down -- that it would bring.
On Tuesday, White said that excitement was evident on the practice field.
"After swallowing Saturday and getting that out of our system, we got a second season and a second chance to get on the field," White said. "A lot of them thought it was gone and over. You're seeing the jubilation of staying alive and getting to move forward."
MOVING FORWARD AGAINST HISTORY: Those seven seniors may have had their careers extended, but they will be playing against both a formidable North Greenville team and an unavailing history Saturday afternoon.
In the past decade, the Rams have made the playoffs eight times but have never won a first-round playoff game, losing five straight first-round contests from 2005 to 2009. When given an off week and a bye into the second round, the Rams are 2-0 with wins against Arkansas Tech in 2004 and Wingate last season.
White believes that a lack of depth is the reason the Rams have gone 3-12 in the NCAA Division II playoffs since their first appearance in 1993.
"I don't think we look at it like we haven't won a lot in the playoffs," White said Tuesday. "We look at it as we get a chance to go each year. We do have some weaknesses in our program that get exposed a lot in our playoffs."
The "weaknesses" White was referring to are the lack of scholarships awarded to the Rams. The ASU football program receives 12 fewer scholarships than other Division II schools, which leaves the team shorthanded at the end of the season when injuries begin to really take their toll.
"Your first 11 (players) are fine, but when you have to bring a linebacker in to play line and then bring a safety in to play linebacker, you have two guys playing out of position because one guy went down," said White, whose Rams will be playing their 12th game in 12 weeks and will need to play 16 games without an off week to win the national championship.
White said he and his players don't really discuss the lack of depth, but Carey did address ASU's unsuccessful history in the postseason during a team meeting Monday.
"I said the worst thing about your past is there is nothing you can do about it," Carey said. "And I said the greatest thing about your past is that you can learn from it."
Wells says he hears the doubters out there but just tries to block them out.
"There is always going to be negativity out there and people saying, 'You all aren't going to do it. You all are going to lose.' But I just try to keep friends around with a positive vibe," Wells said.
INJURY UPDATE: Starting receiver Michael Nelson, a sophomore from Dougherty High School, is the only Ram who has been ruled out for Saturday's game. Nelson, who has seen more action since the season-ending injury to Octavius Staton on Oct. 15, injured his knee during pregame warmups for the SIAC Championship game.
Freshman offensive lineman Victor Moli was injured during Saturday's game and didn't practice Tuesday. White said he is still unsure of Moli's status for the playoff opener.
MILES TO PLAY IN PIONEER BOWL: The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the SIAC announced Tuesday that Johnson C. Smith University and Miles College have been selected to participate in the 13th Pioneer Bowl. The game will take place Dec. 3 at A.J. McClung Stadium in Columbus at 1 p.m.
The Johnson C. Smith Golden Bulls, led by coach Steve Aycock, finished third in the CIAA Southern Division at 5-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play.
The Miles Golden Bears, led by coach Reginald Ruffin, finished first in the SIAC West Division with a 5-2 record in conference play and a 7-4 overall record.
Miles will be making its first appearance in the Pioneer Bowl, while Johnson C. Smith will be making its second appearance. The Golden Bulls also played in the inaugural game in 2006.
Started in 1997, the Pioneer Bowl is an NCAA sanctioned bowl game involving the SIAC and the CIAA. It is the only sanctioned bowl game involving Historically Black Colleges and University athletic conferences.