The 2018 season is here, and the pressure will be on the Shepherd Rams to match last year’s 10-1 record amid major changes.
The Rams’ seek to at least repeat last season’s success and an appearance in the NCAA Division II championship tournament, but the plan is for the team to advance further in the playoffs this year. Last season ended with a first round exit. That may be easier said than done due to the Rams’ recent string of success and the expectations that come with it. Earlier this year, the move was made to transition Shepherd sports to the Pennsylvania State Athletic (PSAC), from the Mountain East Conference.
“The main reason for the move to the PSAC was to align our athletics department with a conference that allowed for more reasonable travel for our student-athletes,” said athletic director Chauncey Winbush. “This will allow for our student-athletes more time on campus and more importantly less missed class time. The change in competition will benefit all of our sports from a strength of schedule standpoint.”
This season will feel slightly different than in years past, as this will be the final season against MEC opponents before the PSAC move.
The Rams lost several key contributors from last season such as quarterback Connor Jessup, left tackle Lavonte Hights, and both outside defensive linemen Myles Humphrey and Elijah Norris. The four have each received an opportunity to compete in the NFL.
The retirement of longtime head coach Monte Cater could also have an impact on the season. Cater was named one of the winningest national college football coaches in NCAA Division II history and led the Rams’ for 31 years. One of his assistants of 18 years, Ernie McCook is to take over as head coach. “Last year I could make suggestions, and this year I have to make decisions. So that’s kind of a unique thing,” McCook said in a recent sit-down. “Replacing coach Cater and the legendary career that he had is going to be an uphill battle. He might be the biggest loss the programs had from last year to now… but I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Even though it is a major transition from Cater to McCook in one regard, McCook has an advantage in that he’s been with the team for over 18 years in various roles. McCook most recently served as the offensive coordinator under Cater before being named head coach back on Jan. 24, 2018.
“Starting on the offensive side of the ball, we lost both offensive tackles in [Lavonte] Hights and Delonte Murray. Both guys were really solid edge setters, had great length. I think we’ll really miss them,” McCook said. “Losing Jessup at quarterback and Jabre Lolley at running back are two big losses, guys that touched the ball a lot.”
McCook was quick to mention starting tight end DJ Cornish. “We are really excited what he brings to the table, along with [wide receiver] Ryan Feiss. Both guys had tremendous amount of production last year,” he said.
On Aug. 13 the Rams were ranked at 16th in American Football Coaches Association preseason poll and on Aug. 17 the Rams were placed at 15 by D2Football.com. Besides the polls, a bit of added pressure came when the Rams were chosen by MEC coaches to win the Mountain East Conference title this year, which would make four years in a row The Rams were picked to finish first on six of 11 ballots.
“The expectations are the same each year. Win a conference championship with an opportunity to play in the post season,” Winbush added. “Once in the post season, take one game at a time with the goal of making it to the top of the D2 football mountain.”
While some contributors left the team after the season, some also have returned to help pursue a fourth straight MEC title including wide out Ryan Feiss, who recorded 95 receptions for a team leading 1,391 yards and nine touchdowns last season. A pair of defenders also return to the team in Chrys Lane and DeJuan Neal who both finished with above 30 tackles last season. Along with center Jamie Colon, Feiss, Neal, and Lane were named team captains for this season by McCook on Aug. 18.
“Ricky Robinson and Scott Dickson are great mainstays on the inside [on the defensive line], Chrys Lane and David Eppard are both guys that have had a great camp, and then we’ve had a great battle in the secondary between Ponce De’Leone and Antonio Fox at the safety position,” McCook said. Lane has been named a team captain as a rising sophomore, as it is easy to see the staff and teammates expect big things from him sooner rather than later. This doesn’t often occur with the Rams’.
“Talking about our team and our expectations, when we start our winter conditioning, and everything we build off of is to win the season opener. We always want to start the season fast and strong,” McCook said. “It doesn’t mean the success of the season is based off it but it’s a great focus to start on. Our first opponents are a good team in Notre Dame College, and we’d love to get off to a win there. From there we focus on our conference,” McCook said promptly. “Our goal every year is to be conference champion.”
As the Rams seek to repeat last season’s success, below is an updated 2018 schedule. The chart also shows the score of last years meetings with the teams.
The lone loss for the Rams last year came against the University of Findlay in the playoffs.
|Sept. 1||@Notre Dame College||Last Meeting: 54-49 W|
|Sept. 15||Glenville State (Family day)||Last Meeting: 42-34 W|
|Sept. 22||@West Virginia State||Last Meeting: 56-41 W|
|Sept. 29||Concord (Homecoming)||Last Meeting: 49-20 W|
|Oct. 6||@West Liberty||Last Meeting: 51-14 W|
|Oct. 13||Fairmont State||Last Meeting: 28-23 W|
|Oct. 20||@Urbana||Last Meeting: 48-14 W|
|Oct. 27||West Virginia Wesleyan (Hall of Fame Weekend)||Last Meeting: 45-14 W|
|Nov. 3||@Charleston||Last Meeting: 49-12 W|
|Nov. 10||UVa-Wise (Military Appreciation and Senior Day)||Last Meeting: 63-35 W|
While there has been some roster and staff changes, most notably at the QB position with last seasons starter Connor Jessup, who spent a brief period on the coaching staff before taking an opportunity with the Washington Redskins. The majority are returning to the Rams so last year’s scores remain relevant and should keep fans hopeful for the teams upcoming prospects.
Vaughn Brewer is the sports editor for The Picket. He can be reached at email@example.com