Back in September, the Shepherd Rams were written off by most followers of NCAA Division II football, with their 2-2 record signifying a mediocre season ahead.
But somebody forgot to tell the Rams.
Instead, the newest member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference decided to focus on what it could control and see just how far it could go.
That’s why Saturday’s playoff game pitting the Rams (9-2) against the host IUP Crimson Hawks (10-1) at Frank Cignetti Field is all the more surprising. Fact is, a lot of people probably thought Shepherd was out of the playoff race before it even really began.
“I’m pretty proud of our team and of what we were able to accomplish,” said second-year Shepherd coach Ernie McCook. “Surprised isn’t the word. I’m pleased and proud. We just coach in the moment. The most important plays and most important games are the ones we’re preparing for, and we don’t let the past affect us positively or negatively.”
The Rams lost their season opener to Ohio Dominican by three points and then beat Mercyhurst and Clarion before losing at home to Kutztown by seven.
At that point, many teams might have started thinking about next year, but McCook said his team kept things in perspective.
“At that time, we realized that we were still competitive in the (PSAC East) and we wanted to remain in the hunt,” he said. “We just played one game at a time. That’s what we did. I have to credit the maturity of our players and the preparation of our coaches for staying on course.”
From that point, and with a focus on just winning the next game, the Rams ended up winning all their remaining games. They enter Saturday’s game against IUP on a seven-game win streak, which included a 12-point win over playoff-bound West Chester, as well as wins over Lock Haven, Millersville, East Stroudsburg, Bloomsburg and Seton Hill.
Some of those wins came easy, some did not.
“In the seven games we’ve played since then,” McCook said, “we’ve had games go down to the last minute, games where we had to come from behind and games where we had to make big stops. We’ve faced a tremendous amount of adversity, and the kids have done an incredible job handling that adversity.”
McCook said he expects his team to face adversity Saturday against the Crimson Hawks — “They don’t really have a weakness," he said — but considering what kind of team he will bring to town, IUP knows it will also face plenty of adversity.
Shepherd features the top passing attack in the PSAC and third best in NCAA Division II. Quarterback Tyson Bagent, a sophomore who IUP recruited heavily, has completed 72 percent (288-for-402) of his passes for 3,547 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. In two collegiate seasons, Bagent has thrown for 6,576 yards and 57 touchdowns.
“We’re very fortunate to have Tyson,” McCook said. “He has great vision. He has all the characteristics you want in a quarterback, and he has some really good players around him.”
Key among them are wide receivers Dylan Brewer (84 catches for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns) and Devin Phelps (51-863-9) and running back Deonte Glover, the PSAC’s leading rusher, who has 1,106 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The Rams average 40.6 points per game and allow 25.7. They’re in the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 22 seasons, which includes four seasons in which they played IUP (1998, 2007, 2012 and 2015).
Shepherd was a member of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for a number of years before it folded in 2013. It then joined the Mountain East Conference for six years and became the PSAC’s first out-of-state full-time member on July 1, 2019.
McCook said the move to the PSAC has brought about some stiffer competition for his team, which makes the Rams’ appearance in the playoffs this season all the more impressive.
That’s especially true considering five of the seven playoff teams in Super Region One are from the PSAC (Slippery Rock, Kutztown and West Chester are the others).
“No question about it,” McCook said. “That’s a credit to the team because we have had to earn our way into the playoffs.”