The bus rolled down the highway, headlights cutting through the inky darkness. It was a cold night, and the bus was hours away from reaching its destination.
It was a quiet night in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, yet it was anything but inside the bus.
Music was blaring, and people were dancing and singing in the aisles. It was a proper celebration, one befitting the 2019 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Champions. According to Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz, the music was loud and the singing was louder all the way back to Slippery Rock.
“I freaking love [this team],” Lutz said. “We’ve got some characters on this football team. They’re highly competitive, and they like to celebrate when they win a game. We’re a family.”
A come-from-behind victory over Kutztown, 37-35, in the PSAC championship game clinched Slippery Rock its first PSAC title since 2015 and secured SRU a much needed first-round bye in the NCAA playoffs.
Lutz said the extra week of rest allowed his team the chance to focus on academics in the classroom while recovering off the field. This past week has been back to game mode though, and Lutz isn’t letting success interrupt what’s gotten his team this far.
“We’re still going after it in practice,” Lutz said. “We’re still going hard, and our approach has gotten us this far. We are not one of those programs that go easy in practice. Easy is not in my vocabulary or my coaching staff’s vocabulary. We’re 100 miles per hour all the time, but we’ve shortened our times.”
It’s that mentality that helped Lutz become the PSAC-West Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season.
“Me being Coach of the Year is not about me ever,” Lutz said. “It’s about our team. I have great players. If you have great players, you’re going to have success. And I’ve got an unbelievable coaching staff.”
Lutz’s players racked up 14 All-PSAC nominations, eight on the first team and six on the second team, which was good for second best in the conference behind Indiana (Pa.)’s 15.
The headliner was senior quarterback Roland Rivers III being honored as the PSAC-West Athlete of the Year.
Rivers, one of the 36 candidates for the Harlon Hill Award, currently has thrown for 3,409 passing yards and 40 passing touchdowns and 591 rushing yards and six more touchdowns.
As not only the best quarterback in the conference, Rivers started the season against Wayne State as one of the most prolific players in the nation and continued to light up opposing defenses all season long.
The senior from Ellenwood, Georgia boasts the No. 1 passing efficiency rating in the country (192.7), the most points responsible for (278) and ranks second in passing touchdowns, third in completion percentage (72%) and fourth in passing yards.
Rivers’ record-breaking season, having set the single season and career passing touchdown records in a Green and White jersey, is a credit to the overall offense this season, Lutz said. He recognized how special the honor is, but he has higher hopes for his star quarterback.
“[Rivers] likes [the recognition],” Lutz said. “He’s a competitor. We’re hoping to have him as a finalist for the Harlon Hall, the Heisman of Division II. I said, ‘how do you do that? Just keep winning.’ I think he’s the best player in the entire country. I think he brings it every day, and it’s just a credit to him.”
As one of the 36 finalists for the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, Lutz is one step closer to his wish. That doesn’t mean he thinks the 6-3 senior doesn’t have plenty of room for improvement.
“He made some mistakes this past game against Kutztown, dropped the ball and threw the interception,” Lutz said. “But he came back at the end like he always does. He’s continuing to get better.”
In crunch time against Kutztown, in the biggest game of the season, Rivers led a clutch drive that Lutz knew he was capable of leading. It wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of a few of his teammates.
The offensive line racked up three nominations, two first-team and one second-team, between the five of them.
Senior left tackle Chris Larsen was named to the first-team and he was subsequently named as one of the eight finalists for the 2019 Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year award.
Larsen has started in every game this season, a stretch which has been extended to 26 straight games and 41 total games over his time with The Rock.
The senior from Erie, Pa. has anchored one of the top offensive lines in the nation, and he garnered the most votes of any offensive or defensive linemen in Super Region One.
He was joined at the All-PSAC ranks by junior left guard Ryan Podgorski and sophomore Jake Tecak. Podgorski was named to the first-team while Tecak was a second-team honoree.
“The guy I was really proud of was Ryan Podgorski, getting first-team,” Lutz said. “And Jake Tecak, he’s never started for us and gets second-team all-conference.”
Larsen, Podgorski and Tecak allowed Slippery Rock’s offense to thrive, leading Division II football in numerous offensive categories throughout the year. The unheralded work of the line allowed running backs Charles Snorweah and DeSean Dinkins to have big days on the ground against Indiana and California (Pa.) and enabled a couple of pass catchers to earn All-PSAC honors.
Junior wide receivers Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn, Jr. brought home first-team and second-team all-conference honors as wide receivers, respectively. Wynn also collected second-team honors as a return specialist.
Wynn is fourth in the PSAC in catches (65), third in receiving yards (1,004) and third in touchdowns (11). The junior from Pittsburgh, Pa. broke 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and recorded four games of at least 120 yards and one touchdown.
As an all-purpose threat, Wynn is one of two players in the conference with a punt return touchdown. His 14.4 punt return yards rank second in the conference and his total yards rank third.
A clutch 59-yard punt return against Kutztown set up a 31-yard field goal from senior kicker Jake Chapla (more on him in a bit) to cut the game to just a one-possession lead.
Not to be outdone, his running mate Litwin notched first-team honors and broke a school record for good measure.
Litwin, who originally walked onto the team, broke former Slippery Rock receiver John Schademan’s record of 15 receiving touchdowns with his second of the day against Kutztown.
With 74 catches for 1,068 yards, both good for second in the PSAC, Litwin has put together one of the best seasons in Slippery Rock history–with Wynn just behind him. His PSAC leading 16 touchdown catches elevate him to the elite tier of Rock receivers.
Aside from his on-field prowess, Lutz pointed to Litwin’s academic success and how hard the junior from Linesville, Pa. works.
“Proud of that [Litwin],” Lutz said. “And our thing, he’s an academic all-region guy, so you look at the total person. He’s a guy who walked on our team, but he wasn’t a walk-on. Mercyhurst and Seton Hill offered him full rides, but he came to walk-on our football team. To have the success that he’s had is what we’re all about.”
Despite Litwin and Wynn each earning All-PSAC honors, Lutz expressed his disappointed that Wynn did not join Litwin as a first-team honoree. The fact that fellow junior receiver Cinque Sweeting received no recognition was a disappointment, too, Lutz said.
While Lutz was proud of the guys who earned conference honors, he said he was disappointed for all the guys who skirted under the radar and received no recognition.
“I think guys are competitors and like to be recognized,” Lutz said. “I would be lying if I said, ‘oh, all they care about is the game.’ There are some guys who were disappointed a little bit, and there were some guys you could tell were excited. Because they’re competitors.”
With redshirt senior defensive lineman Trey Blanchford missing out on conference honors, Lutz expressed his disappointment, but two of his fellow defensive linemen earned first-team honors.
Junior defensive end Chad Kuhn and sophomore defensive lineman Jeff Marx were named to the first-team.
Kuhn posted the only double-digit sack total in the conference (10.5) and racked up 14.5 tackles for loss, good for seventh in the conference. His 43 tackles, 10 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles highlighted the growth he’s shown from his sophomore to junior seasons.
Blanchford’s partner on the defensive line, Marx, doesn’t put up huge numbers or receive the attention other members of the defense do, but his contributions allow the other players to add to their totals. The two-time first-team honoree recorded 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
As the leader of the defense and one of the best linebackers Lutz said he’s ever been around, Zaffram earned his second straight first-team nod.
Zaffram leads Slippery Rock with 74 tackles and 18 tackles for loss. The senior from Buffalo, NY. also recorded two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
While Slippery Rock’s front seven garners a lot of buzz for their play and deservedly so, the secondary came into their own down the stretch.
Senior cornerback Eric Glover-Williams and safety Khadir Roberts earned second-team conference honors as half of one of the best secondaries in the PSAC down the stretch.
Over the final four weeks of the season, following a Roberts move from corner to safety, the secondary allowed just 152 yards per game. Compared to 238 per game over the first seven games.
Glover-Williams earned his second straight second-team nod and his honor came after matching up with the opposing team’s top threat in almost every game. He recorded 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one interception. His nine pass breakups lead Slippery Rock.
Roberts played a hybrid cornerback/safety role this season and has racked up 28 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and four pass breakups.
Lutz pointed to the mixture of veteran experience and youthful growth as a factor in the defense earning five all-conference nods.
“To see Chad Kuhn’s development,” Lutz said. “To see how much of a better year he had this year compared to last year. We knew Jeff Marx and Brad Zaffram since they got it last year. Eric [Glover-Williams] got it last year, but Khadir [Roberts] was kind of new.”
One of the constants over his four years with Slippery Rock, Chapla once again earned first-team all-conference in kicking and second-team in punting.
Even in a relatively down season for the illustrious kicker, connecting on 10-of-17 field goals, Chapla broke the Slippery Rock and PSAC scoring records (369) this season and kicked a walk-off field goal over California.
As the best kicker in SRU history and arguably PSAC history, Chapla ranks first in career field goals made (49) and extra points made (222).
The honors as both kicker and punter were the fifth and sixth All-PSAC honors for the senior from Plum, Pa.
Despite all the award and recognition, across all levels of the team and coaching staff, Lutz said individual accolades are recognized, but this team is all about the team accolades.
While most teams celebrate awards and success with banquets and ceremonies, that isn’t the way Slippery Rock handles its business.
“We don’t have a football banquet and the reason we don’t is that everybody gives awards out,” Lutz said. “We don’t want that; it’s always about the team here.”
With a record-breaking unbeaten 11-0 season, 14 straight PSAC-West wins, a PSAC title, a PSAC Coach and Athlete of the Year and 14 All-PSAC honors, this Slippery Rock team has started the season as one of the best in school history.
The keyword being started. According to Lutz, his team is 0-0 now. Any of those fancy awards and meaningless stats can and will be thrown out the window.
The only goal for Lutz and his team is to take it one game at a time and keep winning.
With three games to get to the championship game and that one final game as the reward, 15 teams all share the same goal. Lutz is pretty sure that’s found out just how to get there though.
“Families deal with adversity, and families fight,” Lutz said. “We fight, they compete and we have issues like anybody. We’re not perfect, but they have a lot of passion, they love life and they love each other. I think that’s usually the formula for success.”
According to Lutz, it can all be summed up in one question.
“A lot of teams have talent, but who are the teams that really come together and be all as one?”