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Are You Ready for Some Football?
by Raymond Franze & photos by John and Pam Boyle
The Shepherd University Rams have high hopes, great expectations, and a little something to prove this season.
"Well, I might take a plane; I might take a train. But if I have to walk, I’m going just the same. I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.” The reward for defeating Grand Valley State University — a fully-funded perennial powerhouse in Division II football with four national titles in six appearances — is having Fats Domino serenade thousands at Rams Stadium while scrambling to make travel arrangements to watch the Shepherd University Rams compete in the NCAA Division II national championship game. The song’s significance is the national championship game recently moved from Florence, Ala., to Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Area college football fans are rabid for popular, big-name programs like the Mountaineers and Terrapins. To find a winner — a team who plays for the love of the game, and a great game day experience — area fans need to look no further than within their own community. On the banks of the Potomac River, located in historic Shepherdstown, W.Va., the Shepherd Rams football team repeatedly defies their small school status to achieve national prominence.
Planes (maybe trains?) and automobiles were the methods used by scores of fans that migrated westward for the historic occasion. While historic due to it being Shepherd’s first trip to the title game — and attended by a Division II championship record-setting crowd of 16,181 — the championship game was far from the Rams’ first venture into post-season play.
Head Coach Monte Cater’s Rams competed in the post-season in seven of the past 11 years, including four quarter-final NCAA Super Region 1 championship games; two semi-final contests; and most recently, their first national championship game.
Until last season, the closest Shepherd came to reaching the national championship for football was in 2010 when they reached the semi-finals against Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where a lengthy rain delay seemed to wash away the momentum they had going in a hard-charged fight against the Statesmen.
A lot of credit for Shepherd’s string of success goes to Defensive Coordinator Josh Kline, who as of 2014 ran a defense that ranked first in rushing defense for the fourth consecutive year. The defense usually lingers around the top five in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense.
Shepherd’s defense sent the Winston-Salem State Rams home scoreless in the second round of the 2013 post-season. The visiting Rams from Winston-Salem, N. C., were averaging just over 41 points per game over the past two seasons entering that matchup, scoring less than 18 points only once and that came against Valdosta State University in the 2012 national championship game. This past season, Shepherd’s defense held Slippery Rock University to just 16 points in the quarterfinals. That game was highly anticipated due to the matchup between Shepherd’s stout defense and Slippery Rock’s potent offense that was averaging almost 47.5 points per game.
Howard Jones and Shaneil Jenkins are two examples highlighting the top-tier talent found on the defensive side of the ball. Shaneil Jenkins begins this season as a rookie in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys. Howard Jones is already an impact player in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Howard recorded a pair of sacks in his NFL debut and racked up five sacks on the season, and scored his first touchdown in the pros with a 43-yard fumble return against the Washington Redskins.
The Game Day Experience
Chuck Bitner, who covers the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) for the D2Football website, writes of “Shepherd’s charming but rowdy Ram Stadium,” in several of his posts. “Ram Stadium is the best home field advantage in SR1 (an area that stretches from North Carolina to New England and out to Ohio). The Shepherd faithful pack the place on a weekly basis and the…shape of the stadium can make it very loud. I’ve been to several games…[it] was nuts. The place was busting at the seams with loud and proud football fans, [where] it will be standing room only and the tailgate lots will be lively. If you’re a D2 fan and it is possible for you to get there, do it.” Rams fans nearly filled the 5,000-seat stadium each game last year as they average 4,744 fans per game. By comparison, the conference’s average attendance was 1,801 fans per game. Karen Davis — mother of defensive back CJ Davis — remarks that, “On occasion we may have had more fans on the visitors side when we traveled to away games.”
“Ram Stadium is the best home field advantage in SR1.”
During the 2015 semi-final game against Grand Valley State University, the reported attendance was 6,496, exceeding the stadium capacity by 1,500. It literally was standing room only for one of the greatest single, game-day experiences in D2 football, if not all of college football.
In addition to the traditional offerings of a stadium’s concessions, fans will find local favorites like Kings’ pizza, and Sharpsburg’s own Captain Bender’s Tavern even goes so far as to set up a tent near the field house where they sell stadium favorites like pulled pork sandwiches and Italian sausages. Charlie’s Kansas City Smoked BBQ will be offered this season as well, inspiring fans and players with a taste of what’s to come when the team makes it back to the national championship game. And anyone who feels incomplete due to missing Shepherd attire can visit the university bookstore’s mobile trailer to avoid missing action during a trip to the main campus bookstore.
A Tailgater's Dream
Prior to kickoff, fans are encouraged to arrive early and tailgate — and many do. During home games, those parking lots turn into a sea of tents, grills, smokers, cornhole boards, flying footballs, and alcohol — for the over-21 crowd — is allowed. Families, friends, and fans come together to enjoy the camaraderie shared by their love of Shepherd football. Michael Humphrey, father of Rams defensive end Myles Humphrey, completes the two-hour drive with plenty of time to spare for the tailgates. “We love it. The camaraderie is awesome. I love showing up at the tailgate and interacting with the other families. Everyone shares anything they seem to have. We will interact with fans from the opposing school. There is a certain energy about the whole experience.”
On the Field
Fans have come to expect a solid performance when they show up on Saturday. Everyone loves a winner — as the saying goes — and the Rams do not disappoint. The team fields a product that continually resides in the top spots within the conference. The Rams secured the conference title in four of the past six seasons, finishing no worse than second. Going back to 1998, the Rams have finished no worse than second place in 14 of 18 seasons.
The Post-Game Party
The on-field celebration perfectly illustrates the bond between the players and fans following the game. Usually a celebration thanks to Shepherd’s dominance at home, families and fans are encouraged to interact with the team down on the field. Hugs and smiles replace the aggression as young children try to maintain their balance wearing a helmet. Both parents and children use the opportunity to throw the pigskin around — re-creating some plays and implementing their own.
The Upcoming Season
The team is poised to prove that last season was no fluke. There is a lingering sourness on their taste buds following the performance against Northwest Missouri State; and they are eager for their next opportunity to prove to themselves and the country that they are worthy of competing against the best Division II talent in the nation. Offensive Coordinator Ernie McCook is excited about the depth along the offensive line, which he hopes will help the team establish the run and protect the quarterback in the pocket.
Highlighting the local talent is senior CJ Davis. CJ earned first team, all-conference honors in each of the past three seasons. Moonlighting as a return specialist, CJ has returned several kick and punt returns for touchdown. He scored a touchdown on his first punt return, and his 1,033 combined kick-and-punt-return yards are the most for any player in a single season in program history — an impressive statistic considering Shepherd has return specialists who remain atop the NCAA record books for return duties.
The faithful show their pride by flying the Shepherd colors.
The school is exploring options for television coverage at the time this article went to print. Increased seating will come over time; and the team plans to add a hospitality pavilion on the hill overlooking the field near the visitors’ stands. The program is determined to become a perennial powerhouse; and they are parlaying their recent success as an investment for the future.
The Shepherd faithful will continue to provide the best game-day atmosphere in the conference, and they will continue to show their pride by flying the Shepherd colors. A view through the “Ram-blin” photo album on the “Shepherd Ramfootballfans” Facebook page shows the colors being flown all over the world — from kissing the Blarney Stone to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis while en route to the championship game. They’ve been hoisted at numerous sandy, sea
level locales and all the way to the 9,700-foot Zugspitze peak in the German Alps.
Shepherd’s football program has its challenges. The under-funded program finds itself competing deep in the postseason against programs that are fully-funded — maximizing the authorized 36 scholarships allowed in Division II. Emotional and financial investments from the community should allow the program to update equipment, fund more scholarships, attract more talent, and continue to challenge the top programs in the country.
Regardless, Coach Cater, his staff, and the athletes continue to maximize what they have while they continue to impress the region and challenge the nation, moving the chains one “first and 10, Rams!” at a time.
See For Yourself
While catching a live NFL or even Division I college football game can put a serious dent in your wallet, getting into a Rams game can be as cheap as $10 for a general admission ticket, just $5 for kids in kindergarten through high school, and peewees in preschool or younger get in for free. There are also reserved tickets available for $25, and for the truly dedicated, season tickets range from $110–125, which is less than most single seats at a Redskins game. It just may be the best deal around come football season.