When Mark Harris signed to play football at the University of West Florida (UWF) in 2015 and joined the program’s first recruiting class, he had no idea where the program would stand in 2017, and he sure wasn’t expecting to play in a national championship any time soon. Fortunately for Harris, he was wrong.
“I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’” laughed the 2015 Ponte Vedra High School graduate and former Sharks football player. “We’ve gone from a nobody to a national championship contender in two years.”
In just their second season of NCAA Division II play, the UWF Argonauts (11-4) embarked on a storybook season that concluded with four consecutive playoff wins, including a , and a trip to the national title in Kansas City this past Saturday, Dec. 16.
The Argos, who finished the season with a No. 2 national ranking, ultimately lost to Texas A&M-Commerce 37-27 at Children’s Mercy Park, the home of the Sporting Kansas City soccer team. But Harris, who plays tight end and long snapper, said he felt fortunate to even be there given the program’s very recent and humble beginnings.
Just two years before in 2015, the UWF football team completed a full season of playing nobody but themselves, Harris explained. No games. All practice. The previous year in 2014, the Pensacola-based university hired Pete Shinnick to become its first head football coach.
“It was pretty difficult to see a vision of a national championship, especially with a bunch of young freshmen,” said Harris, who is now a redshirt sophomore/junior in the classroom studying supply chain logistics.
In 2016, the Argos defied expectations and finished 5-6 in their inaugural season, playing in the Gulf South Conference, which Harris called the “SEC of Division II.”
This year, Harris said the team entered the season with high expectations and a vision of contending for the national championship. As seen on ESPN 2 this past weekend, that vision became a reality.
The Ponte Vedra native said Texas A&M-Commerce proved to be a tough opponent led by a quarterback who won the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. The Argos went into halftime down six points, said Harris, but that didn’t scare UWF, since the team came from behind in several of its playoff games to ultimately win and advance to the next round. Unfortunately for the Argos, that didn’t prove to be the case this time around. But according to Harris, the team is confident about its chances next year.
"I think the foundation that we’ve laid is perfect for us to return next year,” he said. “It’s going to be a long offseason knowing that we could have finished the job, but I think that from here on out, we’re definitely going to play with a lot of confidence. Don’t be surprised if you see us there next year.”