Not long after losing 24-7 to Richmond in last year's NCAA Football Championship Subdivision national final, the Montana Grizzlies started looking ahead to 2009 and a return trip to Chattanooga.
"We had an opportunity to do something that a team doesn't get very often, and that's go to Chattanooga," junior running back Chase Reynolds said. "After last year, after that loss, I think everybody said let's buckle down and let's make it back here and win this thing next year."
The Grizzlies (14-0) haven't lost since that bitter defeat in Finley Stadium, when they got outplayed by the Spiders. Montana, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, will face No. 2 seed Villanova (13-1) for the championship Friday night.
It's a shot at earning the Missoula program its third national championship, and it's a shot at redemption for the players who came up short a year ago.
"It was something where we wouldn't be satisfied unless we were in this position," senior wideout Marc Mariani said. "It wasn't, OK, we're in the playoffs, or OK, we won the conference. The whole time it was, 'We're going back, and we need to get the job done.'"
Montana has won 119 games since 2000, the most in Division I, and has made the playoffs 17 years in a row. This is the program's seventh trip to the championship game and its fifth since 2000.
Despite that incredible run of success, and despite the regular appearances in the championship game this decade, it's not lost on Montana's players that every shot at a title is precious.
"It's a blessing," Reynolds said after the Grizzlies held off Appalachian State 24-17 in the semifinals last Saturday.
Whereas the game against the Mountaineers was like a heavyweight bout decided on the final punch, Montana's hopes for a return to Chattanooga were nearly squashed in the first round against South Dakota State.
The Grizzlies were down 48-21 with 5:40 left in the third quarter before producing one of the greatest comebacks in college football history. Mariani got it started with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Montana proceeded to close the game on a 40-0 run to win 61-48.
"I think that (comeback) kind of jumpstarted everything," Mariani said. "We definitely know how close we were to turning our gear in, and, for sure, I think it gave us a little scare, knowing that it was all going to be over that fast."
Win or lose, Montana's season will be over Friday night. The Grizzlies are hoping for a happier ending than the one they experienced a year ago.
"That was the focus of the offseason workouts. It was the focus of every game this season," Mariani said, "to take it one step at a time to get back there and win it."