The Towson University football team will play its second-ever postseason game at the Division I level Dec. 7.
In 2011, the Tigers were a young, ragtag group, which bounced back from a one-win season to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship. That season ended during an injury-riddled playoff matchup against former Patriot League rival Lehigh, as the Tigers dropped a 40-38 decision, tilted by Lehigh's fourth-quarter safety.
In 2012, Towson bounced back during the second half of the season. After losing two tough Football Bowl Subdivision road games heading into the competitive CAA portion of its schedule, Towson won the final four games of the season. That season ended when the Tigers were huddled in their locker room to watch the playoff selection show, without hearing their name called.
In 2013, the Tigers are now a veteran-laden team with 10 wins, a first-round bye and a home playoff game against Fordham University, and eyes set on one goal -- a Football Championship Subdivision national championship.
"It's a different mindset," junior running back Terrance West said. "When I was a freshman and we first got into the playoffs against Lehigh, you could just tell the whole vibe was we just wanted to get there. We weren't focused on a national championship -- everybody wanted to win a national championship, but we just wanted to get here. This year, we want it all."
After his second record-breaking season during his three years at Towson, West is one of three finalists in line to take home this year's Walter Payton Award, which is awarded to the most outstanding individual performer in the FCS.
West, who was a freshman the last time the Tigers made the postseason, said he now used the pain of the past two season endings as a reminder of the goal of the 2013 Tigers.
"Right now, we just use it as motivation," West said. "If you look at it any type of other way, it could harm you. So you just got to use it as motivation. Like, in the Lehigh game, we started slow. We got to start off from the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter to win every game in the playoffs."
One of the key seniors on Towson's roster, quarterback Peter Athens, was not a starter on the last playoff team. But Athens' ability to manage the game offensively has guided the Tigers to its first 10-win season as a Division I team. In mentally preparing for his first playoff game, Athens has an inner-facing focus, he said.
"You can watch a lot of film, but the defense might do something different," Athens said. "I think the best way to do it is to know our game plan and just succeed at that."
Athens, who will play without two injured wide receivers, senior Leon Kinnard and junior Spencer Wilkins, will look to his younger receivers to step up in place of the missing upperclassmen.
"They're all young guys," Athens said, "and they're stepping up. They're all very talented, and I have faith in them -- I know the coaching staff does."
As the seventh seed in the FCS tournament, the Tigers had a week off to relax and enjoy Thanksgiving. Although the break in action could be potentially detrimental, head coach Rob Ambrose has prepared for any loss in momentum.
"If you go out and shoot foul shots every day of your life, then you don't really think about it," Ambrose said. "If you have to walk away for a whole week, it's going to take you 15 minutes to get back in the groove. We [practiced] a little bit on Sunday, and we did some more [Tuesday]. By the time we get through the end of practice on Wednesday, we'll be all right."
Slow starts have been a reoccurring theme this season for the Tigers. Towson has scored first once during its last eight games.
"We're going to go start the game," Ambrose said. "We're going to play as hard as we can. But if I had the choice between picking what I want to talk about, starting fast or finishing well, we're going to finish well."
Ambrose, who described last season's playoff snub as the toughest day of his professional life, said he looked forward to a return to the FCS playoffs. Although the team's focus is fixated on a championship, no ring can cover up the scars of seasons past.
"If you forget where you came from, if you forget what you've gone through, then you've never really learned anything," Ambrose said. "It's not something that we focus on, but it's not really something we'll ever let go. It's a good symbol of lost opportunity."
Towson, now matured and experienced through accolades and adversity, won't be celebrating unless its season ends Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.
"We want more than just getting in," Ambrose said.