Historic win sends Shepherd to Kansas City seeking national championship
The list of heroes took some time to read.
Players that had helped Shepherd overcome nationally prominent Grand Valley State, 34-32, were so numerous that reviewing their contributions took some time.
Halfback Allen Cross. Wide receiver Billy Brown. Quarterback Connor Jessop. Linebacker James Gupton. Linebacker Octavius Thomas. Cornerback C.J. Davis. Cornerback Adam Coles. Defensive back Keon Robinson. Offensive linemen Lavonte Hights, Zach Buffkin and Levi Lloyd. Defensive linemen Isaiah Ross, Marshall Mundin and DJ Cornish. Linebacker Jaylen Johnson. Wide receiver Tony Squirewell. And more players who had at least one or two highlights in the win that made enough history in the Shepherd annals to compare in pages to the book War and Peace.
It was the national semifinals. Hosted by Shepherd for the first time.
The crowd spilled through and around Ram Stadium like never before. Thousands stood wherever they could get a glimpse of the playing field. The perfect weather made the test of wills between the two title contenders seem as if it were a game for the ages. And it was!
When it had finally kept the visiting Lakers from taking away all of its lead, Shepherd and its unbeaten 13-0 record might have gone through the archives of music and reached for Wilbert Harrison’s “I’m Goin’ to Kansas City”, site of this week’s national championship game against much-decorated Northwest Missouri State with its multiple championships and visits to the title games when they were played in Florence, Alabama.
Last Saturday’s match between the two football gladiators had each team revealing their colors of resiliency and determination.
Mood swings. Impact plays erupting with no notice they were coming. The final minutes where the Lakers moved to within two points of the Shepherd lead, but saw the Rams keep that edge by stopping a two-point conversion attempt and then have Elijah Norris recover Grand Valley State’s last-ditch, on-side kick.
Shepherd had prevailed with Cross scoring on runs of 55 and 36 yards and generating 157 rushing yards on only 16 carries; with the out-sized receiver Brown catching nine passes for 132 yards and scores from Jessop of 25 and two yards; with Jessop displaying poise and a calm demeanor after replacing injured starter Jeff Ziemba in the first period and proceeding to complete 15 of his 20 throws for 173 yards and no interceptions; with Davis returning an interception 26 yards for a touchdown that bounced Shepherd’s fourth quarter lead to 34-19; and with a rawhide-tough defense that limited the confident Lakers to only 66 rushing yards and intercepted three of quarterback Bart Williams’ 52 passes; with some special teams moments that included a blocked field goal attempt by Joel Schipper, who also missed another three-point try; and was buoyed by the return of Gupton who had missed nearly half of the team’s 13 games with injuries.
Grand Valley had struck first when its pass rush downed Ziemba and sent him off with an injured shoulder.
But Jessop, a transfer from Virginia Tech where he was a walk-on, offered the Laker defense no relief. He spotted Brown and the one-on-one coverage he had and connected with the non pareil Division II receiver for the game’s first points. Cross and his 55-yard burst moved Shepherd to a 14-3 lead, and a scoreless second quarter had Shepherd with its 11-point advantage in tact at halftime.
Grand Valley erased its deficit when it marched along to a score with its first possession of the second half and then wrestled a fumble away from stymied receiver Squirewell and returned it for a score that had it ahead, 17-14.
Grand Valley’s lead was still at three points when the spectacle lurched into the fourth period.
The Lakers raised their four fingers that indicated they would own the fourth quarter. Ownership did not come easily or last long.
The Rams outscored the Michigan team, 20-15, in the final period.
Cross scored from 36 yards out, Brown was alone for a two-yard TD grab and then Davis darted in front of a receiver to steal a Williams’ pass that he returned 26 yards, gifting Shepherd with a 34-19 lead.
But the Rams were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct just after Ryan Earls’ extra point, forcing Earls to kickoff from his own 20.
With graced-by-the-penalty field position, the Lakers moved to a touchdown they achieved on fourth down on a short throw from Williams to Terrell Dorsey. With no timeouts remaining, the Lakers scored again on a Williams to Matt Williams pass.
The all-important two-point conversion try that would have tied the struggle was stopped by the Rams.
An on-side kick was salvaged by Norris after slipping away from another Ram player.
Shepherd finally ruled when the clock melted away to nothing.
As crooner Harrison sang in his 1959 rock ‘n roll song, he was going to Kansas City by train, plane or even if he had to walk. Shepherd won’t be walking to the national championship game that will be televised by ESPN2 at 4 p.m. against the equally unbeaten Bearcats of Northwest Missouri State.
It will be riding there on the long list of its heroes who chased and caught history when they defeated four-time national champion Grand Valley State before an overflow throng of well-wishers last Saturday.