Shepherd loss: Special teams and the winds of change
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Grumpy winds blew through Shepherd’s Ram Stadium last Saturday, biting the noses of the thousands huddled and bundled in the stands, and presaging the changes coming for the school’s athletic doings in the next calendar year.
On the aging artificial turf field where the Rams faced Virginia-Wise, it was the Shepherd special teams that had the largest role in a season-closing, 21-16, loss to the Highland Cavaliers. A lengthy laundry list of special teams mistakes cost Shepherd the game.
Beginning early on, the Rams repeatedly harmed their chances of closing the season with four straight wins against a team that was 3-6 in its first nine games.
Virginia-Wise’s first punt was lofted high enough to give the Ram return man a chance to make a fair catch. But, instead, the punt was allowed to hit the turf, where it bounced all the way to the Shepherd 12 and resulted in a 62-yard boot.
Moments later, the Rams got off a four-yard punt themselves.
Later, a Shepherd punt from shotgun formation from the Highland Cavalier 30, bounced into the end zone for a touchback. The football was placed on the 20, resulting in a punt of a net 10 yards.
With the game even at seven-all, the Rams did get a successful 32-yard field goal from Hayden August-Scriven.
As the game moved along, a Shepherd kickoff return of 26 yards was negated by a holding penalty that resulted in the Rams staring a drive at their own 27.
Next came a long punt return to inside the Highland Cavalier 15, but it was wiped out by a penalty that returned the football to the Ram 25.
The most hurtful of the special teams mistakes came with Virginia-Wise holding to a 14-10 lead. Another Highland Cavalier punt wobbled toward the Ram return man. It hit the ground and brushed against an unsuspecting blocker, making it a free ball for whichever team could claim it. The Shepherd return man tried to safely retrieve it, but the ball got away from him and rolled offensively toward the Shepherd end zone.
A Virginia-Wise player gained control in the end zone for a touchdown that gave the visitors a firmer 21-10 lead.
Misfortune had not been completely blown out of the stadium.
After scoring itself, Shepherd still trailed by five points, with less than three minutes remaining.
What appeared might be an onside kick instead was sent airborne about 30 yards downfield, where it was easily fielded by a Virginia-Wise player who ran a few steps and protected the ball as he fell to the turf.
Finally, with only 1:38 to play and Shepherd out of timeouts, the visitors punted again. The punt carried to the Shepherd 6, was finally corralled . . . but the return run lost four yards back to the two-yard line.
Little time remained. A few more pass plays were tried.
And then the 2018 season was gone. Shepherd recorded a 7-3 record. The Highland Cavaliers gained their first-ever win over any Shepherd team, and had a rousing on-field celebration in moving their record to 4-6.
Virginia-Wise managed only 165 total yards versus the Shepherd defense. It needed every special teams mistake the Rams suffered through to win. Both schools are leaving the Mountain East Conference with Shepherd, entering the PSAC beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. Stinging winds rumbled through Shepherdstown last Saturday; the winds of athletic change at Shepherd won’t be long in coming.