The first he deemed realistic, while the other, he admits, was rather idealistic.
Today’s game with the second-ranked team of the NAIA, the University of the Cumberlands, falls outside of either vision.
“We all build our castles and dream of going undefeated and all those things, but you try to do that with maturity,” Cronic said. “You temper that with what reality might be. Still, reality has been better than what we anticipated in many ways.”
Reinhardt (5-2, 3-0 Mid-South West) lost its first two games by a combined eight points. Since then, the Eagles have won five straight and risen to No. 19 in the NAIA coaches’ poll. Cronic never could have imagined that his team would look at today’s game with undefeated Cumberlands (6-0, 4-0 Mid-South East Division) and see a way for the Eagles to win.
While the Patriots’ record is unblemished, not every victory has been easy. In fact, their last two games against Lindsey Wilson and Georgetown (Ky.) were both won by a touchdown or less.
Reinhardt has only dominated one of its games, but last week’s 49-17 win over Belhaven came at the right time to give the Eagles confidence going into the biggest game in their brief history.
Not only that, but Cronic feels the team’s trials and tribulations have made them better. With a roster often riddled with injury, the Eagles have looked to a variety of players to step up, and someone has each time.
Often, players have had second or third chances to prove themselves on the field. So far, 79 different players have taken the field for Reinhardt.
“That wouldn’t be a lot to play if we were running away or getting beat bad,” Cronic said. “When you are in contention the whole time, that’s a lot of folks to play and shows how many injuries we have faced.”
Now the question the Eagles will face today is, once again, who will step up?
Quarterback Johnathan Chamblee, who went down with an injury against Bethel on Sept. 28, has been deemed healthy enough to play, but Cronic plans to keep him in a backup role for at least another week. Much like a week ago, Ryan Thompson and former Cherokee High School star Dylan Haynes will split time at QB.
The Eagles may also finally see the return of running back P.J. Greene. The feature back entering the season, Greene was injured on the first series of the season at Mercer. He returned for a few snaps against Kentucky Christian in Week 3, but he hasn’t been on the field since.
While Greene’s return isn’t certain, and he wouldn’t be Reinhardt’s primary running back, Cronic is hopeful that Greene will take the field.
Wide receiver Aaron Kennedy will also return to action, although his role might also be limited. Meanwhile, defensive back Christian Hill will be out this week.
“Because of the injuries, these kids have had tremendous opportunities to play,” Cronic said. “You go out and you mess up and someone takes your place. And then, there is an injury and you get another opportunity and see if you are ready and have grown up a bit. Sometimes, you mess up again and wait for another injury to get another chance. There has been a lot of second opportunities this year, and I think that’s good. They see they have to keep preparing.”
Should Reinhardt lose to Cumberlands today, it wouldn’t be a devastating loss, as the teams are on different sides of the Mid-South. The way Cronic sees it, the Eagles have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“We have nothing to lose, and (Cumberlands has) everything to lose,” Cronic said. “There are no expectations on us. I’m sure they have to be smirking a bit about facing freshmen and red-shirt freshmen, but we have their attention.”
Looking at the Patriots, Cronic doesn’t have much to say.
“They good on offense and they are good on defense,” he said. “They are a complete team. They are good. They are real good.”
Still, it’s the coaches’ poll that helps determine which teams get into the NAIA playoffs. How much Reinhardt would slip in the should it lose a game that few think it will win is a good question, but even if the Eagles should fall out of the poll, they would be able to work their way back in with two divisional opponents remaining.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Cronic said. “But, I’ll tell you what, we can’t really be disappointed with this season.”