The word “Homecoming” generally brings up different feelings and thoughts for many people, but when talking about Homecoming one thing is usually agreed upon: that sports are a major focus. Whether it’s at a high school or at The Rock, there’s always two constants: the crowning of Homecoming royalty and a football game. However, sometimes there are more variables that contribute to the excitement that is Homecoming weekend, such as multiple sports playing at the same time or playing a rival like IUP. Last fall, The Rock was lucky enough to have both of those.
“Last year we had all of those events going on, and it’s fun and good for us to have a lot of Alumni back,” SRU Director of Athletics Paul Lueken said. “It’s always a lot of work for the Athletic staff because we always have so much going on and sometimes we get stretched a bit thin, but Homecoming is always a good day here and it’s evolved into something that’s a big party.”
There have been years where nearly every sport is playing a home game on Homecoming weekend, and last season was one of those years where it lined up. Last year, not only did every team play that weekend, but there were multiple games going on at the same time. At one point, the volleyball, women’s soccer and football team were playing at the same time. The cross-country team also hosted an invitational that went on at the same time as all of the games that took place. The football and women’s soccer teams would both go on to win the PSAC in their respective sports just a little over a month after their victories at home on Homecoming.
In the past, alcoholic tailgates weren’t allowed at Slippery Rock but now they are with certain protocols that have been put in place and it’s added to the party-like atmosphere that has developed throughout the years. Homecoming games usually attract big crowds at Slippery Rock, especially during times where the football team is doing well. Last decade, The Rock walked into the Homecoming game under .500 just once and won that game against Edinboro in overtime 38-31 to get themselves back to .500 at 4-4.
“Homecoming weekend is a lot of fun for our community and it always brings a lot of excitement, while having everyone back,” Lueken said. “But any time we play IUP, Homecoming is an event because they travel well and we bring a lot of people back for those games.”
In the past few years, Slippery Rock has hosted IUP on Homecoming twice. And both times, there was a lot at stake. In both 2017 and 2019, IUP and Slippery Rock walked in ranked and undefeated. No. 3 IUP was able to take the game in 2017 against No. 9 Slippery Rock 34-17 in a game that hosted over 10,000 fans. But in 2019, Slippery Rock was able to get revenge in an exciting fashion with a 45-42 win that had major implications on the season. Had The Rock lost the game, Mihalik-Thompson Stadium would likely have not played host to three NCAA Division II playoff games including the National semi-final against Minnesota State-Mankato.
When discussing his favorite memories of Homecoming, the 2019 game against IUP is the one that stands out to SRU football coach Shawn Lutz.
“It was one of those where I have to go with [former SRU quarterback] Roland [Rivers III], because he extended that play towards the end of the game and that would be the winning drive,” Lutz said. “But to beat your rival on homecoming, that’s an unbelievable feeling.”
As time has gone on, the crowds that come to the games at Slippery Rock and the amount of people who participate in Homecoming weekend has just kept going up. In the past few years, the crowds at the Homecoming games has nearly reached 10,000 people in the stands. 2019’s game brought just over 9,000 people just to the football game, and the women’s soccer game also brought a few hundred people to James Egli Field.
“We get unbelievable crowds, but when you add all the festivities and everything like the Alumni tent down below and the tailgating, it’s probably one of the top Division II Homecoming crowds in country,” Lutz said. “And we’ve been lucky enough to be playing for something these past few years but having teams that are nationally ranked and undefeated coming in here makes the stakes even higher and the games even more fun.”
The Rock played ranked opponents three times last decade, with one of those games winding up in a 17-3 upset against No. 14 Cal U in 2011. That same year, The Rock went on to the PSAC championship game in which they would lose a heartbreaker to No. 8 Kutztown 21-14. Homecoming has also had a lot at stake recently, as the Homecoming games have been played at a pivotal point in the season. Such was the case for the 2018 game with Edinboro, as the Rock won 56-28 and it helped The Rock lock up the PSAC West.
“It’s pressure; it’s electrifying because you want to continue to make the people that come back proud, I remember in 2017 that when we lost the game against IUP, that was tough,” Lutz said. “But I like that pressure involved in these games and we have one of the top division II programs in country, so when you see those people you don’t want to let them down.”