Some Shepherd youngsters moved into starting positions
Week after week Shepherd tagged losses on veteran playoff teams Indiana, Slippery Rock and Grand Valley State. The 2015 season became more uplifting — even magical — as the year moved through late November and into December.
A Shepherd team had been to the national semifinals only once and that was in 2010 when the Rams encountered Delta State and a drenching thunderstorm in Cleveland, Mississippi in December.
That Shepherd team was chocked full of experienced lettermen and returning starters from the year before.
When the Rams saw Grand Valley State in the national semifinals at Ram Stadium on Dec. 12 they had only two freshmen that had any sort of important role at all.
Offensive linemen Levi Lloyd and Jaime Colon went on the field to duel with the Lakers. There were no other freshmen associated with responsibilities against a team that fully expected to reach the national championship game the following weekend.
This is a different season and one of the easiest ways to find the changes in Shepherd’s offense and defense is the young personnel being trusted with previously unseen duties on the constantly winning Ram teams.
Freshmen have leading roles. Not just cameo roles on one special team or as a back-row, back-up player.
There are no candidates for all-conference or all-regional honors.
Those laurels are reserved for the likes of multi-lettermen Billy Brown, James Gupton, Octavius Thomas, C.J. Davis, Tre Sullivan, Lavonte Hights, Ruan Venter and Jeff Ziemba.
But there are freshmen starters on both sides of the ball for the Rams, now 2-0 after starting 2016 with wins over West Virginia Wesleyan and Charleston.
Defensive lineman Scott Dixon is the rarest of commodities on any Shepherd team. He is a starter from the state of West Virginia, playing at University High in Morgantown.
Cornerback Chris Jones has moved in as a starter from the outset against West Virginia Wesleyan. He’s from Milford Mill Academy in Maryland.
Two more freshmen have been defensive starters — Bruno Anyangwe, a smallish 6-foot-1, 218-pound end from Clarksburg High in Maryland and Jared Austin, a 5-foot-9, 203-pound outside linebacker from C.D. Hylton High in Woodbridge, Virginia.
First-year running backs Brandon Hlavach and Deonte Glover have shared the tailback position in Shepherd’s oft-used one-back offense.
Hlavach is from Eastern Tech in Baltimore and Glover played in high school at Musselman in Inwood before going to WVU where he never played for the Mountaineers.
Jabre Lolley was supposed to be Shepherd’s starting tailback after playing for three seasons, but he didn’t return to the team for a fourth season.
Can a team with this many freshmen contributors do well enough to help bring the Rams enough wins to collar another Mountain East Conference championship . . . or even still another bid to the seven-team, Super One Regional playoffs that led Shepherd all the way to Kansas City and the NCAA Division II national championship game in 2015?
Charleston is now behind the Rams. Notre Dame, Fairmont, Concord and Glenville loom ahead.
The majority of the heavy lifting that leads to wins will be done by the already-tested, already-proven capable upper classmen.
But the Rams can’t continue winning without more production from their runners and better protection from their offensive line.
The current team has ways to show improvement. And improvement is necessary if any of the Pennsylvania schools should be met in the playoffs.
Starting tomorrow against a better-than-before Virginia-Wise team, the freshmen could begin to blend in with the seniors, juniors and few sophomores to be indistinguishable from the upper classmen.