College Football: Seniors prepare for emotional regular-season finale

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2015

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Nine of Catawba’s seniors appeared at Tuesday’s press conference to talk about a breakthrough season that will bind them together as brothers for the rest of their lives.
“Family” was the word thrown around most frequently. That word has become a sports cliche, but it was being tossed about with sincerity.
There were no tears Tuesday from players who have clinched a share of the South Atlantic Conference title, although some could flow this Saturday when the Indians host Lenoir-Rhyne (5-4, 3-3).
“There still won’t be any tears from me,” vowed stoic 6-foot-4 offensive tackle Lewis McCormick. “I’m not saying our last regular-season game won’t be emotional, but I don’t do any crying.”
The 1:30 p.m. contest could’ve been scripted in Hollywood. It’s Senior Day, it’s Military Appreciation Day, and Catawba (8-2, 5-1 SAC) will be playing for an outright league title and a Division II playoff berth against its biggest rival.
Nothing like that has happened at Shuford Stadium in eight years. The Indians, ranked third in the region, also are playing for a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.
“My senior year is a great time for all these good things to happen for Catawba football,” linebacker Ed Robinson IV said thoughtfully. “But we have to remember that this championship hasn’t happened yet. We still have to take care of business Saturday.”
Lenoir-Rhyne, a program that has beaten the Indians six straight times, is the perfect opponent for what is projected to be a perfect-weather day. While the Bears, the SAC’s dominant team in recent years, are out of the championship hunt, they could regain some prestige by spoiling Catawba’s coronation. If Catawba loses to the Bears, Carson-Newman, which hosts Tusculum, and Mars Hill, which travels to winless Brevard, could tie Catawba for first place and share the SAC title.
“No one wants to be co-champions,” said Catawba running back Cary Littlejohn, who has rushed for 874 yards this season.
Some of Catawba’s seniors were redshirts in 2011 when the team went 3-8. Many saw action in 2012 when a 4-7 season ended with an ugly 44-14 spanking by Lenoir-Rhyne.
“Coach (Curtis) Walker came in my sophomore year and we went 6-5,” Littlejohn said. “I knew this was bound to happen. I expected to win a championship before I graduated. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like it happened overnight. We worked and we worked and we worked. But I knew it would happen.”
Walker believed it would happen if players bought in. They obviously have bought in to all those team-unity concepts that he preaches.
“I definitely can remember 3-8, but Coach Walker told us from the start that championships were possible before this class left,” center Tim Buck said. “He was right. We started clicking.”
There have been two pivotal SAC games this season.
There was a 14-7 win at Carson-Newman on Sept. 19 that surprised everyone but the coaching staff. That victory came after a 44-13 beating at home from national power West Georgia on opening day and an uninspired 35-21 win at Davidson.
“Winning at Carson-Newman put our foot in the door,” Catawba nose guard Jonathan Jean said. “That win told everyone that Catawba was here and that Catawba could go with the best.”
Success at Carson-Newman was followed by dismal failure against Wingate — a miserable 17-0 home loss on Sept. 26 that knocked Catawba down to 2-2.
The Oct. 3 game against Newberry was the turning point. The weather was at least as dreary as it was against Wingate, and Catawba’s futile offensive performance looked like an instant replay. Late in the third quarter, Catawba trailed 13-3.
“We could’ve laid down, but we didn’t lay down,” Jean said.
A sudden 60-yard run by QB Mike Sheehan swung that game. Looking back, that dash by Sheehan swung the entire season. Catawba rallied to beat Newberry, 17-13, and has won five more in a row since. The Indians have won four of those five with authority.
“Late in that Newberry game, we showed what we could do on offense,” said senior receiver Gary Williams, a member of the region’s all-academic team. “Since then it’s been a different feeling. It’s been a feeling like I’ve never had before.”
On Oct. 17, Catawba whipped a Mars Hill team that started tearing through the SAC as soon as it left Shuford Stadium. Last week, Catawba’s defense held a Tusculum team that was averaging 31 points per game to two field goals.
“The defense has been rock-solid all year,” Littlejohn said.
For many years, L-R week has been the closing week. But this week the Indians have practiced with the expectation that practices — and games — will continue.
“You go to practice every day smiling, and it’s almost like you’re dreaming,” Jean said. “The seniors have a real appreciation for where we are right now.”
No one appreciates it more than senior Tim Pangburn, the former All-State guard from West Rowan who has fought back from injuries and is in his sixth season with the program.
“Where we are now, playing for a championship, I’ve worked six years to get here,” Pangburn said.
Mark Covert is a fifth-year offensive lineman who’s kept plugging away and is now the backup center on the depth chart. There’s never been any glory for him, but this season is something he’ll cherish. There’s a feeling of accomplishment. He knows he was part of something bigger than himself.
“There’s been a lot of growth to this program in the five years I’ve been here,” Covert said. “You always want to leave a place better than you found it, and Catawba football has gotten better. The seniors are going to leave here as champions. That makes me feel good.”
While none of Catawba’s players has beaten Lenoir-Rhyne, there was a different look to the Indians when they dropped a 27-21 scrap to the Bears in Hickory last season.
“I remember (offensive line) Coach (Brian) Hinson telling us after that game that next year we’d be playing Lenoir-Rhyne for a championship,” Pangburn said. “Here we are.”
Standout senior cornerback Mark McDaniel, who starred at South Rowan, is 0-3 against the Bears, so he gives them their due and takes nothing for granted.
“They play fast, they’re explosive and they can hit you with a big play running or passing,” McDaniel said. “They’re still very good, but I believe it will be a different Catawba team this time. This is always a rivalry, but in past years the rivalry was all we had to play for. This time we’re playing for a whole lot more.”
Walker is fond of this group of seniors. They’ve done more than their share to turn around Catawba football.
“They’ve done so many great things and they’ve advanced us a long way as a team,” Walker said. “Three straight winning seasons and now they can end their careers as champions.”