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Shepherd Rams hoping long break won't bowl them over

November 21, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - If Shepherd University ever wondered what it would be like to play in bowl game, it'll have the answer on Saturday.

Well, sort of.

The Rams will be playing in the postsesaon and around a holiday. They're just not playing in a game with a fruit, flower or corporate sponsor in the name. In fact, unlike some of those other glorified holiday exhibitions, Shepherd's game actually will have some meaning.

Shepherd will be hosting Indiana (Pa.) in the Northeast semifinal of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The only thing resembling a bowl situation is the fact the Rams will be playing for the first time in three weeks.

"It has been so different with the layoff," said Shepherd coach Monte Cater. "It's much different than the times before, because you get used to doing a number of things. But waiting three Saturdays before a game, that's unique."

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Shepherd finished a 10-1 regular season with a 42-7 win over West Virginia State on Nov. 3, good for its fourth straight West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. In the process, the Rams became ranked No. 2 in the Northeast.

Shepherd had an open week for Nov. 10, the final week of the regular season. The top six teams in the region advanced to the playoffs, which began last week, but Shepherd earned a bye in the first round because of the high ranking.

That puts the Rams back on the field at noon this Saturday, the 21st day since their last game. Indiana, on the other hand, has played in the last two weeks - losing to Bloomsburg before becoming the sixth seed and defeating third-seeded West Chester.

"IUP has a great playoff tradition," Cater said. "They have played for championships before. You have to get out here and play."

So, there the bowl comparison ends.

"For those (Division-I bowl) schools, they have a chance to get away for three weeks and take their finals before getting ready for the game," Cater said. "We haven't been shutting down practice. We just haven't been pounding on each other as much."

"Still, you have to do work for the linemen to keep up on their blocking," Cater said. "We focused on the passing game and refined some things and our special teams got a lot of work."

Even the week leading up to the game has been a different experience for the Rams. The Thanksgiving holiday has given a different feel around campus since the students are on break.

"The holiday throws it off, but with no classes we can lift weights and watch films more," Cater said. "From that standpoint, it's better."

It means each player has a different daily routine leading up to practice. And on Thursday, Cater plans an early practice to enable players to get home to celebrate with their families in the evening.

"We are back to game week work like usual, but it will be different on Thursday," Cater said. "Many of the players will be going home - some taking teammates - for Thanksgiving, which is good. Most everyone has somewhere to go and many of the players don't live that far from campus. We just hope they drive safely."

The extra time also allows Shepherd to have everyone healthy for Saturday's game. Cater said the only player who is questionable is linebacker Joey Hooks, who missed the West Virginia State game with a hamstring injury. Hooks ranks fourth on the team with 37 tackles.

"He's the only one we're not sure about. We'll practice and see what he can do," Cater said. "He got hurt early against West Liberty. He's the only one who knows what he can do."

One part of the playoff planning Cater doesn't enjoy is setting the roster for the game. The NCAA playoffs allow only 54 players to suit up for all postseason games. During the regular season, home teams can dress everyone while visitors are allowed to travel a roster of 60.

"It's a disappointment because it eliminates five to seven players who used to travel and play in games," Cater said. "Now, some guys will have to double up to cover those spots. But also, there are guys who helped us get here that won't be able to play."

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