Crowds flocked to see Shepherd win first 13 games
At times, the wind howled through bone-chilled Ram Stadium. On other Saturdays it drizzled or threatened even more dismal weather.
And until the national semifinals, Shepherd always won. And the crowds at its home games mostly exceeded the stadium’s listed capacity.
Shepherd won its third Mountain East Conference championship in the four years the league has existed.
Another 10-0 record regular season was earned — matching the 10-0 regular season from 2015.
In its four years in the Mountain East, Shepherd has an overall record of 38-2.
The conference championship seasons have continued, the same as the Rams had through the final half-dozen years in the defunct WVIAC.
Until the final-game loss to North Alabama in the NCAA Division II national semifinals, Shepherd had averaged over 40 points a game.
Its defense limited 14 opponents to just 95 rushing yards a game.
Starting the season without any experienced running backs, the Rams threw more often than they ran and averaged 312 passing yards per game. There was an average of 457 yards of total offense per game with freshman back Brandon Hlavach getting 1,253 rushing yards and a 5.7 yards per try average.
Wide receiver Billy Brown had 99 catches for 1,580 yards and 22 touchdowns, having three of his most productive games against playoff opponents Assumption, LIU Post and California. Converted defensive back C.J. Davis had 69 receptions for 1,235 yards and nine touchdowns.
The closest regular season games were a 10-point win over previously undefeated Fairmont, an 11-point win over West Liberty and a 14-point win over Concord.
There were 70 points and numerous individual and team records set against West Virginia State. Five times the Rams scored at least 40 points and three of those games were against playoff opponents.
Quarterback Jeff Ziemba threw for 3,627 yards and 32 touchdowns. Connor Jessop set the school records in the thrashing of West Virginia State, a team that Coach Monte Cater has a 30-0 career record against.
Two Rams — offensive tackle Lavonte Hights and Billy Brown — were named to first- or second-team All-America squads.
There was a very young group of cornerbacks, but veteran safety Tre Sullivan and linebackers Octavius Thomas and James Gupton were the season-long leaders of a defense that won gold stars in late-season victories over Concord, Fairmont and Urbana.
Thomas was a starter for four seasons and played on three unbeaten regular-season teams. His 108 tackles led the team.
Gupton, a three-year starter as a junior, had 99 tackles and Sullivan finished with 74 stops. Defensive end Myles Humphrey, a junior, had 13.5 sacks.
Sophomore punter Ruan Venter had 14 boots of more than 50 yards and averaged 41.5 yards per try.
On Saturday, December 10, there were 7,017 people counted at people-flooded Ram Stadium. The game-time temperature was 35 degrees and the wind was whistling next to too many bare necks and fingers at 18 mph.
The starting seniors were Brown, Davis, Ziemba, tight end Jamie Deason, long snapper Nick Barmoy, offensive lineman Jacob Kingston, offensive tackle William Smith, Sullivan, Marshall Mundin, Adam Coles and Thomas.
It was another 13-1 record, the same as established last season.
It was still another high national ranking.
The overflow crowds have become the norm at Shepherd football fests. And those crowds have been vocal and inspiring to the team. In fact, a significant contingent of Shepherd fans traveled to western Pennsylvania for the playoff game against California and had more enthusiasm in Shepherd’s comeback from a 17-0 deficit than the home side could muster even when the Vulcans were ahead.
Trophies, other hardware and several championship banners were collected as the Rams made their unbeaten way through the first 13 games.
And a 13-1 overall record was the lasting impression made by this record-setting team.