Shepherd senior fullback Jon Hammer walked into Sporting Park Thursday evening for a press conference for the NCAA Division II championship game for the first time.
When Shepherd (13-0) takes on Northwest Missouri State (14-0) at 3 p.m. Central time Saturday, the Rams will try to attain something the Bearcats have taken home to Maryville, Mo., four times: a national title.
Everything about the national championship game is new for Hammer and his teammates. By comparison, some of the players for Northwest Missouri State played high school football in Kansas City and most of the players know the area well.
For Hammer, this was his first time in Kansas City. He spent the last four years playing football in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He is part of the first Shepherd football team to reach the championship game.
“When I first saw the stadium when we walked through those doors, the first words out of my mouth were 'wow, this is awesome,'” Hammer said. “It is a neat opportunity. Me, being a senior, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. For some of the other guys, hopefully it is not a once in a lifetime opportunity for them. I'm going to make the most out of the experience.”
Hammer knows how tough it is to play in his team's final Division II game of the season. Three times during his career, the Rams made the playoffs and twice came up short.
Hammer, though, was thrilled that his head coach Monte Cater gets the opportunity to coach in a national championship game. Cater is in his 29th season as Shepherd's head coach.
“We all think coach Cater, more than anyone, deserves to be here,” Hammer said.
In sharp contrast, Northwest Missouri State senior offensive lineman Shane Smith was inside Sporting Park for the second time this football season. Back in early August, Smith attended the MIAA preseason football media day at Sporting Park.
“Having doubters and not knowing how the year was going to go, it is a dream come true to see all the hard work pay off,” Smith said. “A lot of people want this opportunity, but not many get this chance. It is a special feeling.”
During the MIAA media day, Smith sat at the podium and listened to his head coach Adam Dorrel talk about the Bearcats being a 7-4 team on paper. Part of it was based on the youth of the team and the other part was to motivate the players.
“When he first said it, I could see where he was coming from,” Smith said. “We were losing great defensive players, great offensive players and guys who have been here a long time.
“What he meant by that was if we were going to be good, we will need a lot of guys to step up. That was one of the things a lot of guys did. I can’t say enough about the resiliency of the team.”
Northwest Missouri, a regular participant in the Division II championship game, bowed out of the playoffs in the first round in 2014 after taking home the title in 2013.
Players for both teams appreciate being involved in the 2015 championship game. Even though Northwest Missouri State played in 2013, this one was fresh for the Bearcats. In the past, they played in Florence, Alabama.
For players like Smith and senior quarterback Brady Bolles, the trip to Kansas City makes this year’s appearance new. After the press conference, the six captains for Northwest Missouri State went on the field and snapped pictures of themselves with the scoreboard in the background.
Hammer and defensive end Shaneil Jenkins were just as happy to be part of the festivities that surrounds the national championship game, which included a Thursday night banquet dinner for both teams at Sporting Park.
Both teams overcame adversity in their semifinal victories to reach the title game. Shepherd lost its starting quarterback Jeff Ziemba in the first series of the game. The Rams stopped a potential, game-tying two-point conversion by Grand Valley State with 54 seconds left to secure the win.
“You got to battle,” Cater said. “They have done so much to help each other get better. They have had some adversity. We haven’t lost a game, but you have to be able to come from behind and come from behind on the road. They have been able to do those things.
“We have a little bit bigger challenge on Saturday, but this group has been great to work with. They are close. It is a family-type group. They are going to battle until the end.”
Northwest Missouri watched a 24-6 halftime lead shrink to 24-23 with 4:39 left with West Georgia attempting a go-ahead 53-yard field goal in its semifinal game. The Bearcats prevailed, winning 38-23.
“I know how tough it is in a tournament format to make it this far,” Dorrel said. “We know there were a lot of good teams knocked out. I’m proud of our kids.”
Now, the only two teams left with unblemished records in Division II in the 2015 season will try to be the last one standing with a zero in the loss column.
“These guys [Rams] are one of the top teams in the country or else they wouldn’t be here,” Smith said. “When you put their film on, you can tell they are a well coached, disciplined team. It is going to be a huge challenge. Again, I am very excited to be here. I am looking forward to Saturday.”