FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) -- Mel Tjeerdsma isn't getting tired of these annual trips to Alabama for the Division II national championship game.
"Not yet," the Northwest Missouri State coach said. "I hope to get to experience a few more. It certainly doesn't get old. It's a thrill."
Tjeerdsma's Bearcats (13-1) will play in a record fifth consecutive title game on Saturday against Grand Valley State (13-1).
It is the third time in five years that the teams are meeting in the championship held annually at North Alabama's Braly Municipal Stadium. Northwest Missouri last won the title in 1999.
Grand Valley had won four titles in five trips before failing to make it to the championship the past two seasons. The Lakers are trying to match North Dakota State's record of five Division II championships, though the players aren't all that impressed with numbers.
"We've been part of so many streaks and records," quarterback Brad Iciek said, "we haven't really thought about anything like that."
Both teams had to overcome plenty to get this far.
Grand Valley lost seven players to injury in the first half of the season. Then coach Chuck Martin had to suspend four players for violation of team rules before the semifinal game against Carson-Newman.
The group included leading rusher James Berezik and backup defensive end Blair Hollis, as well as starting defensive tackle Andre Thomas and backup Ryan Wheat.
It didn't slow the team down much. P.T. Gates ran for a career-high 187 yards and totaled a team playoff record 326 all-purpose yards while subbing for Berezik in the 41-27 win.
"We've got six all-conference players and five key backups that were not on the plane fight to Alabama" because of injuries or suspension, Martin said.
After the suspensions, he said, "We just kind of looked each other and said, this is kind of how the year's gone. We keep losing guys."
Iciek thinks he and the rest of a senior class that has gone 51-3 helped keep the team together. Just like Martin asked them to before the season.
"I think that says a lot about our team," said the quarterback, who has thrown for 33 touchdowns while giving up only two interceptions. "We've got a lot of good character on this team. At the beginning of the year coach Martin had a meeting with all the seniors and said, 'You guys are a special group and you're going to carry this team however far we go.' Coach said at the beginning of the year it's on us and we've made it this far."
Northwest Missouri has only three offensive starters who played in last year's title game. The Bearcats haven't lost since dropping their opener to Abilene Christian, surviving 21-20 in a quarterfinal against Central Washington with the help of a blocked extra point attempt in the final seconds.
They aren't worrying about the three title-game losses -- or last year's win.
"What's happened in history is past," said wide receiver Abe Qaoud, playing in the game for the fourth time. "We're not really worried about that."
Northwest Missouri has an impressive offensive triple threat. LaRon Council has run for 1,610 yards and 20 touchdowns. Quarterback Blake Bolles has passed for 3,947 yards and 41 TDs. And receiver Jake Soy's 1,441 yards and 26 touchdown catches lead the nation.
Martin thinks Northwest Missouri's skill players are "heads and shoulders" above what he has seen from even the powerful Bearcats teams of recent seasons.
"They're way more explosive," he said. "The speed, size and strength they put on the field is a very daunting task."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)