Where have all the game-winning players gone?
SHEPHERDSTOWN — A new and springy artificial turf field was in place. So many freshmen faces joined with a handful of transfers and 13 returning starters from the 2018 team that anybody enterprising enough to sell programs with the players’ numbers could have afforded some of the food being shoveled down in the shade of the Smallwood and Small pavilion on Saturday afternoon.
Ram Stadium was abuzz with coordinated noise, laughter and light-hearted banter, as Shepherd boosters and those with an interest in how the usually stellar football team will contend in 2019 gathered for the team’s first scrimmage of the year.
Shepherd is embarking.
The team will be pushing off into the highly competitive waters of the first-seen Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
But few are going to forget the halcyon seasons of the recent past. Unbeaten regular season teams for three consecutive seasons under the low-key, excellent-results coaching of now-retired coach Monte Cater. A visit to the national championship game in Kansas City. The national semifinals the next season. And then a third straight unbeaten, 10-0 regular season, just two years ago.
Shepherd sent players to the NFL. Most of them aren’t there now, but Tre Sullivan is still with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Winning football games are not foregone conclusions at Shepherd. This team will not inherit the glad tidings provided the followers and the interested public by the three consecutive unbeaten teams.
Nothing is preordained. The uniform — complete with the curved horns on the helmets — won’t bring any opponent to its knees. Any wins achieved in 2019 won’t come because of some laudatory carryover from 2015, 2016 or 2017.
Just because the Shepherd faithful are used to winning and winning and winning doesn’t mean games dropping into the Rams’ win column this season will be automatic. There are no more Tre Sullivans, Billy Browns, Connor Jessops, James Guptons, Ryan Feisses, Jeff Ziembas or Howard Joneses on this Shepherd version.
Youthful inexperience, instead, is in the place of those players who beat Indiana, California, Slippery Rock and Grand Valley State in the cold of recent Octobers and Novembers and once in December.
Shepherd is likely to be the underdog in at least five of its 11 games, including the season-opener at Ram Stadium, when Ohio Dominican comes to town on the heels of its 9-2 record achieved in 2018.
And Ohio Dominican is not even a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Tradition carries some weight. But “tradition” never cleared the way for 225 rushing yards by an opponent or prevented six sacks of the home side’s quarterback. “Tradition” never lined up such an untried defensive secondary or such an unproven offensive line.
There will be no residual effect from the three unbeaten seasons. In 2019, the Rams will be in a different sea — a different schedule with several long-time powers to face — with a team that had difficulty running the football last year and had just as much trouble trying to stop the run in losses to Fairmont, Virginia-Wise and Notre Dame.