Two months ago, the outlook appeared bleak for UC Riverside.
Seven players had left the team for a variety of reasons and Coach John Masi was concerned about putting together a competitive squad.
But things turned around with three consecutive victories in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn.
"Those three games gave us a little life and a little pulse, and somehow we could do a little better," Masi said Friday, a day before his team (25-5) faces fifth-ranked Southern Indiana (28-4) for the NCAA Division II championship. "It gave us a little motivation to stay focused. We didn't have incentive prior to that."
Reaching the final has been a season-long mission for Southern Indiana.
"It's been our focus all year long," Coach Bruce Pearl said. "Last year we didn't know if we belonged. This year we knew we wouldn't be happy unless we won the national championship."
Despite Riverside's problems this season, Pearl doesn't buy into the Highlanders being the underdogs today.
"They are a very confident team," he said. "They were the No. 1 seed coming out of their region and they beat the No. 1 team in the country (Indiana (Pa.)) in the semifinals."