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December cold and North Alabama greet Shepherd’s ‘Semifinal Saturday’

By Staff | Dec 9, 2016

Shepherd was in the national semifinals just last year. This will be North Alabama’s (once Florence State) tenth trip to the Saturday where only four teams are left standing.

The weather with its expected high temperature of 35 degrees could become a factor.

The NCAA Division II spotlight will shine again on Shepherdstown . . . as it did just last season when Shepherd staved off a Grand Valley State rally to win 34-32 and reach the national championship game.

The Rams come in with a 13-0 record and playoff wins over Assumption, LIU Post and just last week over California of Pennsylvania.

California had a 17-0 lead and was playing on its home field in bundled up western Pennsylvania.

But the Rams scored the game’s last three touchdowns, the last coming after an 83-yard, 15-play drive that saw quarterback Connor Jessop score on a one-yard, fourth down run.

California was unbeaten and the top-seed in Super Region One.

When last seen in an NCAA playoff game of this magnitude against Grand Valley State, Shepherd’s Ram Stadium had a shoe-horned crowd of about 7,000 in its 5,000-seat confines. Creature comforts may prevail a little more this weekend and the attendance might not reach nearly 2,000 over the stadium’s seating capacity.

The most publicized of the Lions from North Alabama are Coach Bobby Wallace, quarterback Jacob Tucker, offensive tackle Stephen Evans, receiver Dre Hall and live mascots Leo III and Una.

Wallace was coaching in Florence before leaving for an eight-year stint at Temple. He guided the Lions to national championships in 1993, 1994, and 1995 before moving north to Temple, where his success was minimal, going 19-71 in those eight seasons.

Wallace went to West Alabama for five years and had only a 26-30 overall record. He came back to North Alabama in 2012, replacing Terry Bowden who went to Akron, and has a 43-14 record since returning. Wallace had a 82-36-1 record in his first stint in Florence.

Tucker is a Harlon Hill Award finalist, the same as Shepherd quarterback Jeff Ziemba. Evans was a finalist for the Upshaw Award, given to the top offensive lineman in Division II football. He finished sixth in the voting for that honor. Hall is the school’s career leader in pass receptions with 156.

Leo III and Una are African lions that live in a large compound on campus.

The Lions are 10-1 overall with the only loss being to Jacksonville State (Alabama), a higher division school in the FCS ranks.

They defeated West Georgia by a point, easily handled Delta State, 49-19, stopped North Carolina Pembroke, 41-17, in the playoffs and stampeded North Greenville (South Carolina), 38-0, just last week at home at cavernous Braley Stadium in Florence.

This is North Alabama’s first semifinal appearance since 2008.

The 12-noon game will be televised on ESPN3.

Shepherd has registered three playoff wins with the last two coming on the road at then-unbeaten LIU Post and then-undefeated California.

Followers of Ram football fortunes will remember the close to the ultrasuccessful 2015 season when Ziemba was injured against Grand Valley State. He was removed after one offensive series and replaced by Jessop, who completed 20-of-25 passes as Shepherd won its way to the national championship game in Kansas City.

Ziemba was injured late in the California game after a keeper that got him to the Vulcan one-yard line. Jessop entered and scored on the next play.

What Ziemba’s health will be on Saturday is unknown . . . but he came back to play the entire game against Northwest Missouri State in the 2015 championship match . . . and Shepherd fell, 34-7.

Last week, the Rams found themselves under a 17-0 first-half deficit before rallying to take a short-lived lead before halftime.

California opened its lead to 30-21 before the Rams uncorked an offensive explosion that netted three touchdowns — two in the fourth quarter — and had a 41-30 season-extending victory.

It’s going to be cold, cold, cold.

But on the artificial turf at Ram Stadium it’s going to be heated action with both teams trying to get to Kansas City and the NCAA Division II championship game.