By Marcus Fitzsimmons | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Two weeks ago, the road to conference contention for Maryville College's football team seemed as twisted and treacherous as the side roads leading into Ferrum, Va., from the west. A 3-2 conference mark with two games remaining — and those against the most athletic teams in the USA South — and still someone was going to have to help out and give Christopher Newport a loss for the Scots to be in the running for their first conference football title since Herbert Hoover was in the White House and Lombe Honaker's years at MC were still counted in the single digits.
But Maryville navigated its way through that path to do everything it had to do to put an exclamation point on the season. MC knocked off North Carolina Wesleyan on Honaker Field in Week 9 and then Saturday kept the presumed USAC player of the year — Ferrum quarterback Tim Reynolds — pinned up for the final three quarters as Maryville went into the Panthers' Den and came away with a 22-17 win over the front-runners.
"Their fans were roaring and their sideline is jumping and up and down, our fans are yelling, 'hit 'em in the mouth,' like they do and I could barely even hear the headset," head coach Mike Rader told The Daily Times to describe Saturday's game-time atmosphere. "You know, most times I can just yell out on the field and everyone can hear me; it's small college football in a lot of places, but not Saturday. I wish more and more fans could experience it; unless you were there, it was just special."
The only thing missing was for Methodist to pull the upset in Newport News, Va., and in the late hours Saturday night Methodist did just that, pulling out a dramatic 30-29 win in POMOCO Stadium to create a three-way tie for first place in the USA South.
After leaving Virginia in the afternoon with just a hope for help, the Scots rolled back in to campus Saturday night as champions, and more than one rendition of the Fight Song rang across campus through the November night from the throats of the newly minted USA South champions.
"The excitement on the bus was electric. You could feel guys were nervous. We had one laptop going in the back of the bus and were watching on coach (Shawn) Hayes' laptop in front until the battery died, and then we watched on mine," Rader said as mobile devices, laptops and smartphones from all sorts of MC hands tuned into the webcast. "It's hard to watch knowing you have no control left over anything, but in the end when they won, it was just sheer joy on those young men's faces. They wanted me to say something and I'm kind of speechless."
The Scots watched through the web as they rode home as Methodist broke ahead to a 14-point lead, then fell behind by two scores before rallying in the fourth quarter. As Methodist and CNU shook hands, Maryville was on Alcoa Highway aboard the bus where the team broke into the fight song once and then again.
"What I finally told them was how much I appreciated the effort they'd given from day 1 from Day 1 when I was hired. Their level of commit and focus has just been awesome. It's been fun to watch. Last night I was in shock, still in shock in a way trying to process all the blessing the good lord has brought together in our program, all the puzzle pieces that were moved within this team, its really unreal
"It was very interesting to watch them, and their reactions, I also told them, 'You will never forget this moment right here.'"
The head-to-head tiebreakers still give Christopher Newport the conference's automatic qualifier for the 32-team NCAA Division III football playoffs where the Caps are an eight-seed against multi-time national champion Mount Union. But Maryville has its highest finish in the USAC after eight seasons and a surge of excitement to take into its offseason.
The empowering finale was far better finish than an 0-2 start in nonconference play and a 1-3 mark entering October foretold. MC won five of its last six, swept all four USA South road games and made a mockery of the preseason coachs' poll that pegged the team for seventh.
That transformation wasn't merely good fortune smiling on Maryville. With two first-year starters alternating time at quarterback for nine games — when only injury separated them — and the top top tailbacks sidelined by preseason injury the Scots kept building game by game on what they would and could execute each week. That got more complicated as team captains Jamie Owen and Paul Costanzo went down to injury just as Travis Felder and Chad Brooks returned.
It was a lot to put on a team learning new systems, schemes and approaches under a new staff. But every time one piece went off the board, another stepped in to take the burden.
"Defensively we lose Jamie and Gabe Johnson is out with a concussion when we go to Greensboro but we have an unreal running game going but lose our left guard, Dalton Stephens. Then we play Methodist without him and we couldn't run but we have just enough of a pass game to get past them but we lose receiver Blake Williams," Rader said in quickly recapping the give some and take some away of the season the team faced. "We have LaGrange without Blake and get Dalton back, but it's nuts when you think about the adversity this team has over come, it was crazy how thin we got at times in and we still got victories."
It was a puzzle piece game that continued Saturday against Ferrum as Williams was cleared for limited action against the Panthers and ended up filling in for Ed Johnson — the team's leading receiver in his absence — when Johnson had his eye scratched on a critical punt return.
"Blake came back within a limited role when Eddie got his eye scratched, so we had Blake in, we had the entire line back and were almost for the first time the full team again," Rader said. "They wanted it so bad, what I was really proud of was the mental capacity and focus they displayed to match the focus of Ferrum on their Senior Day and they were able to go to another level."
With the first title, — shared or not — since Maryville took back-to-back Smoky Mountain Athletic Conference titles under Honaker's direction in 1930 and 1931, the big question for Rader and his team is what's next?
"It was unreal and it still somewhat is, we met (Sunday) as a staff and to get planned for next week," Rader said of the first offseason strategy session. "I really wanted to emphasize that it was time to recharge the batteries a little. And we'll do the same with the team when we meet with them (today) and talk about the weight room and finishing out this semester strong academically."