Ultrasuccessful season not tarnished by last pitfall
The road to an unbeaten regular season, wins in three straight playoff games and positioning in the NCAA Division II national championship game in the heartland of America was built with a foundation of solidarity, a stellar corps of linebackers, enough skilled offensive players, a helpful group of special teams and a trusted coaches-players relationship.
It took nearly four months to construct that rugged road made with as much heart as with muscle and talent.
That road will be long remembered when thoughts of Shepherd University football are brought to light even 50 years from now.
The 2015 team set so many records and standards while etching forever in minds the Saturdays and one Thursday night where 13 victories were achieved and the national spotlight shone for about a fortnight on the small-enrollment school situated on the shallow banks of the Potomac River.
Conference champions once more. Super One Region champions once more. Unbeaten once more.
National championship game for the first time.
The injuries piled up as they do after 13 games. Some starters were lost and couldn’t return. Other starters were lost and did return with a fury that saw them better their previous work. And several starters played on through their misfortunes and pain that eroded their effectiveness.
At the end of the road came Kansas City and the balanced force named the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. Four times the national champions were these Bearcats. Four other times their lot was losses in other title games. On Saturday, came a fifth national title in the form of a 34-7 win over the Rams.
Shepherd needed a more perfect game to win than did the Bearcats, who could make some mistakes and still win. Any warts the Rams still had or were burdened with by new injuries couldn’t be shown.
But last Saturday they couldn’t be hidden.
Almost from the outset, Shepherd lost some of the sting from its curled horns with high snaps, a lost fumble and little continuity with its offense that couldn’t hold out the Bearcat pass rushers.
Northwest Missouri State and its crescendo of noise provided by its scads of backers from only 90 miles away in Maryville quickly pushed the Rams into a darkened corner unseen in all the Shepherd season.
And the Rams could not escape that corner.
Shepherd trailed 24-0 by halftime. Only receiver Billy Brown and linebackers James Gupton and Octvius Thomas were stamping their positive imprints on the goings-on.
The unbeaten Bearcats (15-0 after their championship was finalized) had rushed the passer more vigorously than any team the Rams had seen. And Shepherd had little or no impact with its pass rush on whatever the Northwest Missouri State quarterback felt like doing.
Shepherd’s only touchdown would appropriately be provided by Brown. Gupton had a monstrous game with 19 tackles and Thomas had 10 himself.
Shepherd had only 44 offensive plays and Brown’s six catches for 95 yards and its only score were the Rams’ one finished portrait of offense.
The six lanes-wide autobahn the Rams had ridden on all season had one pitfall at the very end.
But the Shepherd season became the high-water mark (to borrow a phrase from Gettysburg and that Civil War battle) in all of the school’s athletics history. Football began to be played and watched at Shepherd across the highway from Ram Stadium in 1920 when the helmets were glorified cardboard and automobiles were parked right next to sideline markers.
Grinding out one win after another finally brought the national spotlight to focus its brilliance on Shepherd and Shepherdstown.
None of the season’s Santa’s-sleighfull of accomplishments were dulled by a single loss.
Shepherd had crafted a masterpiece for all to see.