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For the good of school and conference

November 21, 1998|By DAN SPEARS

* With a strong showing today in their first NCAA playoff game, the Shepherd Rams can help shine a more positive light on the West Virginia Conference.




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - As if the Shepherd College football team needed any more pressure.

No, heading into the home of perennial Division II power Indiana, Pa., today for the team's first-ever NCAA playoff game wasn't enough.

The Rams are putting more than their own reputation on the line; they're playing for the pride of the entire West Virginia Conference.

"We're playing for ourselves, but we're playing for the conference as well," senior linebacker Tom Mercer said. "We've got to win some respect for them, too. ... Hopefully, we can put a better showing than Glenville (in 1997)."

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The Pioneers were the conference's first team in the playoffs, but weren't a very good one, getting trounced by New Haven, 47-7. And in national circles, that loss for the league has not gone away.

"People are saying, 'Oh, Shepherd got in,'" head coach Monte Cater said. "And winning can help us with the legitimacy of our league. We want people to say, 'It's not a fluke. They're a good team.'

"If we don't play well, we haven't helped the league or ourselves."

But the Rams (9-1) have picked a tough time to stick up for themselves. The Indians (10-1) have made two trips to the national title game in the '90s and are a team that puts big numbers on the scoreboard, but rarely allows them.

"We're just one step below panic," Cater said with a laugh, but then got serious. "We see how good they are ... This is our biggest test, without a doubt."

The man of the hour may be Shepherd's man of the year, Damian Beane. The Harlon Hill regional finalist - and his 177.5 rushing yards per game average - will be called upon to keep drives alive against a defense that allows only 78 yards a game on the ground.

"We're going to try and ground out some drives," Beane said. "It's nice to get some big plays, but we're going to try to control the clock because they've got a good defense."

"They like to run like we do," Cater said. "It'll be established with the run. Whoever can do that will get a leg up."

So the Rams' defense wants to keep its feet firmly planted on the ground. But Indiana runs behind a massive offensive line that makes way for 212 rushing yards per game. Both Terrance Wilson and Tink Stennett both have over 800 yards for the season.

"They spread it around," Cater said. "They'll mash you up front ... They want to keep the football and be physical."

"We haven't seen size like that across the line," Mercer said. "They don't try to trick you or anything; they just try to run it and say, 'Our players are better than yours.'

"But if we can stop the run, we're in good shape."

The Rams can't be in much better shape emotionally because the normal playoff pressure just isn't being felt.

"Once we got past the initial excitement, it's just a regular week," Beane said. "We're preparing just like against any other team. If you get too excited, you lose your focus, and then you're in trouble."

"No one is uptight, this is what we've played all year for," Mercer said. "There's nothing left to do now but play."

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