The returners for the Shepherd football program walked into the auditorium for the first preseason meeting in the 2015 season with a single purpose.
The Rams had every intention to be where they are today. Shepherd, 13-0, will face Northwest Missouri, 14-0, at 4 p.m. ET Saturday in the NCAA Division II championship game at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
Shepherd, which resides in historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia, has never finished a season undefeated in Division II nor won a national title.
“The returners said, ‘guys, we’ve won the conference a couple of times and we have been in the playoffs. Let us do whatever we can and work as hard as we can to make it to that final game this year.’ It really sunk in,” senior fullback Jon Hammer said.
Shepherd coach Monte Cater heard those words and was a bit hesitant to think the 2015 Rams would be his first team in his 29 years as head coach at Shepherd to reach the championship game.
Cater knows just how difficult it is for a team to play in the final game of the Division II season. In 2005 and ’06, Cater guided the Rams to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and those teams failed to make the championship game.
Coming into this season, Cater looked at the youth of his team and simply wanted his team to battle hard in each game.
“This has been a unique year for us,” Cater said. “This is a relatively young football team. We only have 10 seniors that are playing. We have a couple of guys in back-up positions.
“A lot people have said do you think this is the kind of year where you can reach these heights. We were excited about trying to challenge for our conference championship and hoping that it could go wherever it could.”
Always in the minds of the players, Hammer said, were the words spoken at the first meeting of the season. Those words stuck.
In practice, the Rams gave a little more. They studied a little harder when they watched film of opponents. Senior defensive end Shaneil Jenkins credits that attention to detail for the success of the defense.
“Our defensive coaches are great,” Jenkins said. “They prepare us in every aspect of defense. We focus. We watch tape with each other. It is like homework. We are so close knit. They help us look at the little details of everything. We don’t want people to get a single yard on us.”
In two of his seasons at Shepherd, Hammer experienced losses in the playoffs. Losing in the playoffs always leaves players wondering during the offseason. Most playoff games are close. Many times one play makes a difference between winning and losing.
“You lose a game and are knocked out, you say man, if there was one more big play or something went differently or we did this, it wouldn’t have gotten away from us,” Hammer said.
The true test that revealed the Rams determination to make it to Kansas City occurred in the first quarter of the semifinal game against Grand Valley State, a program that has won four national titles.
Shepherd lost junior quarterback Jeff Ziemba, a Harlon Hill finalist, in the first series. Sophomore Connor Jessop replaced Ziemba and guided Shepherd to the first score of the game.
“Everybody talks about the next man up,” Cater said. “We definitely had that situation. We lost our free safety, too. Jeff has been so good for our offense. He is a leader. You lose him and that could have wiped us out early on. This is going to be a tough ball game against a great opponent.
“Connor Jessop really stepped up and the surrounding guys helped lift him up. It is great example of somebody going in there and helping their teammates win.”
Being at home gave the Rams an important 12th man. Shepherdstown, chartered in 1762, is a town of just over 2,000 residents.
“I’m from Illinois and my wife is from Wisconsin and I coached in those states before I came to Shepherd. I have stayed a long time,” Cater said. “It is in a great setting. I’m a history buff and I used to teach history. You can find all the history you want here.
“It is big enough, but not too big and small enough, but not too small. The people on campus are close. We have a great faculty and administration that really back us. We get a great following on Saturday. There is no one in our league that we play that has crowds that support them like we do. That has been the fun part of it, too.”
The players feel that support. In the semifinal game, the Rams played in front of 6,496 fans.
“We really are a close knit family,” Hammer said. “The same people come out and support us. They learn our names and we learn their names. It feels good when somebody comes up to you and follows you. It feels like a family.”
Saying the word family is how Shepherd concludes each practice.
“I’m excited for our kids,” Cater said. “We have a great staff. They have done super work. Our kids play hard. They get after it. It is probably the closest team that maybe I had a chance to coach and that’s a long time.”
The Rams enjoyed playing Grand Valley, a team from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference and look forward to facing a team from the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“It is cool,” Hammer said. “You have an idea of what these other conferences are like in your head. We heard how big the GLIAC is and how big the players in the MIAA are. It is like let’s see if the images we pictured in our heads match up.
“For the most part, football players are football players. Winning that game last week really proved that. We all strap on our pads the same way. Whoever comes to battle and makes fewer mistakes and more big plays wins the game.”