NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The big question surrounding BR-2 Shepherd heading into Saturday’s D2 Football Championship game against BR-1 Northwest Missouri State is status of junior quarterback Jeff Ziemba.
Ziemba, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, left the Rams’ 34-32 win over BR-3 Grand Valley State last Saturday on the opening series of the game. Shepherd head coach Monte Cater did indicate that the injury wasn’t as severe as initially feared during a pre-practice briefing at North Kansas City High School on Thursday.
“It’s just an AC sprain in the shoulder,” Cater said. “It wasn’t like a broken collarbone. But, he’s worked hard every day” to get ready for Saturday.
“It’s a situation where we’re just going to wait a little bit.”
The comfort level for Shepherd has to be high considering the performance from backup quarterback Connor Jessop.
“[Jeff] got whacked pretty good,” Cater said. “But the good thing is that Connor almost a full game, a big important game against a really good opponent and he had a great day. If he has to go, we feel good about that. But, obviously, we’d hope that Jeff would play.”
Jon Hammer might be the most underrated cog in the Shepherd offense.
In his four seasons at Shepherd, the senior fullback from Jarrettsville, Md. has had a grand total of three carries for a net of four yards. His last carry came in the first quarter of the Rams’ 2014 season opening win against West Liberty.
And that’s the way he likes it.
“As part of the offensive line, my job is to open the holes for our running backs, protect the quarterback. When Jeff has enough time to throw the ball, great things happen. I’m really proud to be part of this offensive line.”
It’s an offensive line in which sophomore right tackle Lavonte Hights was the only returning starter at the start of the season. Despite giving up nine sacks in their first two playoff games, including six against Slippery Rock, the Rams held Grand Valley to just two sacks last week.
“We’re a group where everyone takes pride in doing your job,” Hammer said. “We have a great offensive line coach and he puts a lot of time and a lot of hours. We’re good at communicating with each other so I think that’s really helped us.”
CHERISHING THE UNDERDOG ROLE
Shepherd enters tomorrow’s championship game as decided underdogs against a Northwest Missouri team looking for their fifth D2 Football Championship just 90 miles to the south of their Maryville, Mo. campus.
The Rams, however, are up to the task.
“We’ve battled a lot this year,” Hammer said. “We’ve come from behind in a couple games in the postseason. No one on that sideline thought that we were out of the game.”
Very few outside of West Virginia gave Shepherd much of a chance against Indiana (Pa.), Slippery Rock and Grand Valley, only to be proven wrong.
“We’ve been picked to lose every game in the playoffs, so this one doesn’t surprise me that we’d be picked to lose this one,” Cater said.
Shepherd drew over 5,000 fans in their first three playoff games this season, including a stadium-record 6,496 fans last Saturday against Grand Valley.
“I tried to get them to switch the game to our place so we could have a home game, but they weren’t going to do it,” Cater quipped. “It’ll be a road game, we knew that right off the bat that this was going to be one where there’d be a little bit more noise on one side. We have big crowds at home and we don’t see that many big crowds when we go on the road so that part of it will be different.”
The players, however, don’t seem intimidated by a potential crowd of over 18,000, with the majority likely to be sporting the green and white of Northwest Missouri.
“We don’t really look at it as a challenge,” Hammer said. “We’re used to a packed house, but nothing like what we hopefully have on Saturday.”
GRASS GREENER IN KANSAS CITY?
As is the case with most D2 football teams, Shepherd plays most, if not all, of their games on FieldTurf or other artificial surfaces. Will there be much of an adjustment for the Rams as they prepare for the natural grass field of Kansas City’s Sporting Park?
“Our guys think they’re real fast regardless of the turf, but it will be different,” Cater said. “I think that’s something you get used to really quick. And you’re going to have to. But, [Sporting Park is] a really nice field and they really have it kept well. I think we’ll be able to adjust.”
With a new turf installed prior to the start of the season at Mountain East Conference rival West Virginia Wesleyan, it leaves West Virginia State as one of only nine teams in Super Region 1 (and one of two outside of the CIAA) which still plays on natural grass.
“It’ll be the first grass field we’ve played on in a while,” Cater said. “Almost everyone in our league has gone to field turf. We played at West Virginia State last year, but by the time we get down there next year, they’ll probably have turf also.”
Shepherd wideout Kevin Cook has three catches in 10 games this season, but he snagged a significant honor from the NCAA during last night’s championship game banquet for his work in the classroom.
Cook, a senior wideout from Severna Park, Md., received the NCAA’s Elite 90 award as the top student-athlete among players from the two semifinal teams. A business administration major, Cook carries a 3.95 GPA.
The Elite 90 recognizes the true essence of the student-athlete by honoring the individual who has reached the pinnacle of competition at the national championship level in his or her sport, while also achieving the highest academic standard among his or her peers. The Elite 90 is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s championships.
Eligible student-athletes are sophomores or above who have participated in their sport for at least two years with their school. They must be an active member of the team, traveling and a designated member of the squad size at the championship.