0

So ... just who are the North Greenville Crusaders?

Former Clemson signee and one-time Tigers starting quarterback Willy Korn has been lighting up the stat sheet since leaving Death Valley and transferring to North Greenville, where he’s led the Crusaders to a 16-3 record in two years. (North Greenville University/Special to The Herald)

Former Clemson signee and one-time Tigers starting quarterback Willy Korn has been lighting up the stat sheet since leaving Death Valley and transferring to North Greenville, where he’s led the Crusaders to a 16-3 record in two years. (North Greenville University/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY -- Somewhere between Travelers Rest and Slater-Marietta in the heart of Northwest South Carolina, you hang a right.

And then in the middle of thick forests on Highway 414, there's a Southern Baptist college that just about nobody at Albany State had heard of weeks ago.

"I would have said it was in North Carolina ... maybe Virginia," ASU senior Rashad McRae said of North Greenville University, the Rams' opponent in Saturday's first round of the Division II playoffs. "No, I would have said North Carolina."

Looking Ahead

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.

WEB: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

IF WIN: Will face Mars Hill (N.C.) Nov. 26.

The Rams will actually be traveling to Tigerville, S.C., a town with a population of just 1,312, where they will play an independent North Greenville team -- led by former Clemson star quarterback Willy Korn -- that came out of nowhere this season to snatch the No. 3 seed in Region Two.

Because its schedule consisted of too many non-Division II schools prior to this year, this was North Greenville's first season to be eligible to play in the Division II playoffs. And the Crusaders made the most of it, finishing 9-2 with what North Greenville coach Jamey Chadwell called the best team in school history during a telephone interview with The Herald on Wednesday morning.

"For the program and the university, you just couldn't put a price tag on making the playoffs," Chadwell said. "When our name got put on the website (in the playoff bracket) it was pretty special for the players."

On Sunday afternoon, the Crusaders gathered as a team on campus and watched the online selection show live on NCAA.com, and Chadwell said even though they were ranked third in Super Region Two and 20th in the American Football Coaches Association Coaches' Poll, he wasn't certain they would make the playoffs without a conference championship.

"Being an independent you never know," Chadwell said. "We have no earned access and no tradition. They went right to our region (in the selection show), and when we saw North Greenville we got pretty excited. I can't even tell you what they said (on the live stream) after that."

Albany State, which lost the SIAC Championship game against Miles, had even more reason to suspect its season was over. But now both the Rams and the Crusaders are in the field of 24 teams competing for a national title, and Chadwell admits his team may not be the most talented in the postseason but likes the fact his players "play together."

The Crusaders are 12th in the nation in scoring, averaging 37.91 points per game. With a spread offense that Chadwell compared to the run-oriented Oregon offense, North Greenville is averaging 250 rushing yards per game (10th in the nation).

Leading the way for the Crusaders has been Korn, a senior quarterback who had one heck of a journey before ending up in a North Greenville uniform. The Byrnes High School (S.C.) graduate began his college career at Clemson, where he was redshirted his first year there. He saw little action as a freshman then began his sophomore year as the starter before losing that job to Kyle Parker, who is currently playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies' minor league system.

After losing that starting job to Parker, Korn transferred to Marshall, where he quickly found out he wouldn't be competing for that starting job, either. So before his junior season even began, he transferred to North Greenville, which had just lost both of its quarterbacks to injuries.

The door was wide open for Korn, who began starting the third game of the season and has a 16-3 record under center since.

"I really believe that I needed North Greenville more than the other way around," Korn told the Travelers Rest Tribune in a recent interview. "The way things had gone for me the previous few years, I had lost confidence in myself, and didn't believe in myself anymore; I really didn't think I was a very good player. I let it affect me off the field also. When things keep going bad, you automatically start to assume that something else bad is going to happen."

The Crusaders are having the season of a lifetime, and Korn is a big reason why. He is averaging 209 passing yards per game and has thrown 21 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He has also ran for 289 yards and four touchdowns, but Chadwell said his senior leader is more than just a stat-stuffer.

"He has allowed our university to spread our message of what we are trying to do academically, athletically and spiritually," Chadwell said. "His work ethic and the way he treats people is amazing. He loves to compete, and he loves to lead."

Chadwell, who is in his third year as coach of the Crusaders, had never run the spread offense before Korn came to the team, but now North Greenville thrives with its new high-powered attack.

However, the history at Tigerville pales in comparison to what ASU coach Mike White and the Rams have accomplished in the last decade. The Rams have now made the playoffs eight straight years, which is what attracted ASU senior Antorio Wells to Albany four years ago.

The defensive lineman from Rome, Ga., said Tuesday he that was originally recruited by North Greenville, but he was more interested in playing on a team with a shot at a national title.

"When I walked off of campus, I knew I wasn't going there," Wells said about his recruiting visit to North Greenville.

Now Wells and the rest of the Rams will be walking onto campus in Tigerville with years of experience, something the Crusaders just don't have.

"(ASU) won't be intimidated when they come into our place," Chadwell said. "And I think that gives them the edge."