It has been a wild and magical ride for the Navarro Bulldogs, who face New Mexico Military Institute at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference title game at Tiger Stadium.
And you can add a slice of irony to the magic and the drama it took the Dawgs to get here: They wouldn’t have made it without NMMI.
The Bulldogs, who started the season at 0-3 and 0-2 in the conference, rallied to land in a five-way tie for third place in the conference race, and won the No. 3 seed with tiebreakers.
“But we wouldn’t have advanced to the playoffs if not for New Mexico Military,” Navarro coach Scott Parr said Friday. “They beat NEO, Blinn and Kilgore, and we lost to all three. I don’t think we’re in the playoffs if they don’t beat Blinn and NEO. If they don’t win those games we wouldn’t have won the tiebreaker.”
Navarro went 3-1 against the other four teams in the mad tiebreaker, beating NMMI, Tyler and Cisco. NMMI also went 3-1 and those two advanced to the semifinal playoffs, where Navarro upset No. 8 Trinity Valley and NMMI upset No. 4 Kilgore last week to create Saturdays’ title showdown.
Parr joked with Navarro AD Michael Landers that maybe Navarro should buy New Mexico Military’s pre-game meal for helping the Dawgs reach the playoffs.
He was kidding, but that anecdote illustrates just how crazy the path was to Saturday’s title game.
“We do owe them,” Parr said.
The Bulldogs reached .500 (5-5) with their comeback thriller over TVCC last week in Athens, where Parker McNeil threw a 20-yard TD pass to Quinton Lee with 20 seconds left to beat the Cardinals 26-24 exactly one week after losing to TVCC 45-44.
Whew! And that’s just part of Navarro’s journey to Tiger Stadium, where Parr and everyone else at the school is hoping for a big turnout for the game.
The Dawgs haven’t won a conference title since 2012 and no one gave them much of a chance when they fell to 0-2 on August 31 with a loss to Kilgore.
Navarro didn’t just lose the game, they lost McNeil, the No. 1 quarterback in the nation, in the third quarter to a rib injury. No one was sure if he would return.
But after losing to Blinn the next week to fall to 0-3 and 0-2 in the conference, McNeil found his way back in Game 4, and he led the Bulldogs past Tyler for their first win of the season. Two weeks later they were embarrassed by Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 35-3 and no one gave them a chance of coming back and having any hope at the postseason.
They had a romp over Texas A&T in a non-conference game and after a bye week they won at New Mexico 47-10 to climb back within shouting distance of the playoffs. They lost to TVCC 45-44 when a fumble at the TVCC 13 in the final minutes seemed to have ended their season.
But all the dominoes fell their way with the other games in the league and five teams finished with 3-4 records.
And here they are, a team that came back from oblivion with a chance to win a title. It’s been a fascinating story.
“It’s a good story. I just hope it’s a good ending,” said Parr, who could have never imagined his first yeara s the head coach at Navarro would be so memorable.
“We have been resilient,” he said. “We’ve talked about it all year how we’ve got kids who are going to battle every week. We feel like our kids are prepared every week.”
Navarro has been in so many close games just to get here, including the last two weeks, splitting nailbiters with Trinity Valley. They lead the league in drama.
“And blood pressure,” joked Parr, whose team -- with the exception of the NEO loss -- never seems to be out of a game.
Now they’re playing a team they hammered on the road, winning 47-10 in their most one sided game of the year.
“We played really well that day,” Parr said. “That was our most complete game of the year. We played as good of a game as we played all year.”
The Bulldogs led 26-10 at halftime and outscored NMMI 21-0 in the second half. McNeil completed 24-of-34 passes for 313 yards and five touchdowns, and backup Dodge Delozier finished the game at quarterback, connecting on 3-of-4 passes for 43 yards in the one-sided win.
But Parr knows that game has nothing to do with the title game Saturday.
“They have the same resilient story,” he said. “And they beat NEO, Blinn and Kilgore, three teams we didn’t beat. We’ve got nothing but respect for the job they’ve done.”
NMMI has done it with defense and big plays. The Broncos (6-4 and 4-4 in the conference) are averaging just 268 yards and 24.4 points a game in a conference full of big-scoring teams. McNeil leads the nation, averaging 342 yards in the air a game. He’s thrown 27 touchdowns after missing almost two games with his rib injury. NMMI has thrown 11 TD passes all year.
But they have found ways to win down the stretch, beating NEO 35-21 and beating Blinn, which was the favorite to win the title, 45-42 in a thriller before pulling off the bug upset at Kilgore, where they won last week 20-10, putting the game away late with a 55-yard fumble return that made a 13-10 lead into a 20-10 victory.
“They play good defense,” Parr said. “And they’re very opportunistic on defense and score on defense. And they are the least penalized team in the conference.”
Parr said he’s looking for a game in which NMMI plays tough defense and plays ball control on offense.
It will be night and day from the wild shootouts against TVCC the last two weeks.
Parr and his Bulldogs have found a way to win this season and it might come down to that Saturday. He’s not afraid to gamble. He pulled off a fake field goal and scored on a fourth-and-goal on the same drive in the fourth quarter last week.
McNeil, who has thrown for 3,078 yards and has led the nation in passing two years in a row, has plenty of targets with great hands. Shadeed Ahmed has 48 receptions for 710 yards, Lee has 47 catches for 627 and Alex Washington has 39 receptions for 675, and those three have combined to catch 15 touchdown passes.
All three have made big-time clutch catches this season.
The two teams appear to be as opposite as they can be, but both arrived with great dramatic and inspired runs down the stretch to get here and both pulled up huge upsets over nationally-ranked Top 10 teams last week to set up the showdown.
It has been seven years since Navarro won the title, and the wild journey to get to this game just makes Parr and his players want it that much more.
“For us to win the title ... It would mean everything,” Parr said. “This is what you play for. To see all the hard work these kids put in, to see our school be rewarded with a championship — it would definitely be a special season.”