Seamless transition for football Rams
Untested waters. No shoals. No losses. Several close calls. But the soft landing Shepherd found at the close of its initial football season in the Mountain East Conference completed a perfect 9-0 league record and brought such rewards as a 10-0 overall record, the No. 5 national ranking in the NCAA Division II ranks and the No. 1 seed in Shepherd’s Super region One playoff order.
Some of the teams the Rams saw for the first time. There were three of them. And all three were located in other states-Urbana and Notre Dame in Ohio and University of Virginia at Wise from way off near the Kentucky border in far southwestern Virginia.
Shepherd had one year remaining on a multi-year contract with neighboring Shippensburg. That final year of the contract was fulfilled, much to the Rams’ satisfaction when the Red Raiders were staggered, 33-0, in the first game of the 2013 season. Shippensburg had been 10-0 in its regular season of 2012.
The nine-game conference schedule did not include a meeting with Mountain East Conference rival West Liberty. But all the other schools carried into the new league were familiar names. Moving to the Mountain East from the deflated West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference were Concord, Fairmont, Glenville, West Virginia Wesleyan, West Virginia State and Charleston.
Shepherd had tested the waters those six schools presented.
After brushing past Shippensburg in the 2013 opener, the Rams won on the road at Fairmont and then came back home to edge Urbana by a touchdown. Soon enough, West Virginia Wesleyan, Charleston, Virginia-Wise, Notre Dame, West Virginia State and finally, Concord, were beaten.
A fitting climax to the regular season was a close win on the road in Athens against Concord. If the Mountain Lions had won, they would have shared first place in the league with Shepherd.
It was only on the next to last weekend of the regular season that Shepherd claimed the Region’s No. 1 ranking. The move to the top spot came when previously unbeaten West Chester was toppled by Bloomsburg.
Along with the No. 1 seed in the Super Region One playoff hierarchy came a first-round bye. When Winston-Salem State ran away from American International in a first round game staged in North Carolina, the second round game held in Shepherdstown matched two teams with the same “Rams” nickname.
Shepherd moved tot he Regional finals and the national quarterfinals with a 7-0 win over the North Carolina-based Rams.
West Chester, another school using “Rams” in its nickname, visited Shepherdstown on Dec. 7.
Shepherd’s 11-game winning streak was ended in a silencing, two-play sequence where West Chester scored 14 points on consecutive pas interception returns for touchdowns that brought a stunned disbelief to many in the crowd announced at nearly 5,000.
West Chester went to the national semifinals where it suffered a water-;logged loss at Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina. Lenior-Rhyne then was beaten by Northwest Missouri State in the antional championship game played in Florence, Ala.
Individual Shepherd players reaped a large number of Mountain East Conference awards. And the the region followed suit, naming another significant number of Shepherd players on its All-American teams.
A large senior class had gone out just one game shy of the longest playoff reach ever achieved by any Shepherd team in history. The 2010 team won the Super Region One championship and moved from that national quarterfinal game win to the national semifinals in Cleveland, Miss. Against the Delta State Statesmen.
Delta State won in a game interrupted by a December thunderstorm.
Among those playing in their last Shepherd game against West Chester were Xavier Tyler, Mike Franklin, Howard Jones, Sean Hull, Dominique Dixon, Robert Hayes and Robert Byrd.
When the 2014 season presents its 10-game schedule, Shippensburg will be missing and West Liberty will have been added in place of the Red Raiders.
All 10 games on the 2014 schedule will be against Mountain East Conference rivals.
Coming to Ram Stadium to test how well the Rams have replaced the many lost seniors from the 2013 team will be Concord, Fairmont, Virginia-Wise, West Virginia Wesleyan and Glenville.
Shepherd will travel to conference games at Charleston, Urbana, West Liberty, West Virginia State and Notre Dame of Ohio.
Coach Monte Cater just finished claiming his 14th conference championship in his 27 seasons at Shepherd. He is 1-for-1 in the Mountain East Conference and 13-for-26 in the now-disbanded West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
And while Cater’s latest champions had a legion of seniors on this past 10-0 regular season team, there could be a meaningful number of starters returning for the 2014 season.
Offensive linemen Isaiah Shelton, Hussam Ouri and Dameon Hairston have remaining eligibility, as do receivers William McKenzie, Jamie Deason, Justin Ford, Dalton Boyd and Lue Sokoya.
Running backs Allen Cross and Jabre Lolley were young players on the 2013 team. Fullback Jonathan Hammer was a sophomore and placekicker Ryan Earls was also a sophomore.
If wide receiver Billy Brown has recovered from a leg injury/surgery that kept him out for all of 2013, Shepherd will have an all-conference-type player with three years of remaining eligibility.
Although it lost all four of its front four defender (Franklin, Tyler, Jones and Hayes), the Shepherd defense started underclassmen in De’Ontre Johnson, Octavious Thomas. Levi Barber, Dontrewell Kelley and Phillip Rhoden. Shaneil Jenkins, David Carter, Bernard Wolley and Demetrius Dixon all either stared at times or played extensively at other times.
Shepherd had two underclassmen at quarterback in Jeff Ziemba and Trae Tinsman.
Last year’s recruiting class had its staff of players red-shirted for the most part. Lolley was a red-shirt freshman in 2013. Some backbone players will probably emerge from the long list of 2013 red-shirts to either start or provide able-bodied backups for the group of 2014 starters.
Shepherd will be raised once more to the lofty role of pre-season favorite to win another conference title in 2014. Should the compliments tossed Shepherd’s way prove to be accurate in nature, it would be the Rams’ 15thleague championship in only a 28-year time frame.