The snow covered the ground on the Bob DiSpirito field, and besides the footsteps of the 22 players, it was tough to make out anything on the field. The scoreboard read 58 for Minnesota State University and 15 for Slippery Rock University.
The long, grueling season was over one week before the Rock football team had hoped. It would be the last time the 2019 seniors, such as Harlon Hill winning quarterback Roland Rivers III, would play a collegiate game. No one could have anticipated the long wait to get back on the gridiron for everyone else, though.
Weeks passed, and the loss in the national semifinals stilled weighed heavy on everyone’s minds. They were all grateful for what they had accomplished. Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) champions, 13 wins and on and on. They set a lot of records, sure, but they fell short. They wanted to be the ones playing in McKinney Stadium for that national title.
Things didn’t work out that way. Now, the focus was preparing for the next season. 2020 was going to be their year, they had gone to the quarterfinals in 2018 and the semifinals in 2019. It only seemed logical that the national title game was the next step. 2018 was a big season. The season set the stage for what would come in 2019. To players like Jermaine Wynn Jr., it helped them prove what they were about.
“We were doubted by everyone going into the postseason with two losses, from the outsiders looking in we didn’t even deserve a playoff spot,” Wynn said.
Spring ball was coming up and it was so close they could taste it. It was going to be a big weekend at The Rock. The Slippery Rock Student Government Association (SRSGA) somehow got Roddy Ricch to come, and the next day, The Rock would host the annual Green and White spring game.
But that weekend never happened.
That next senior class wasn’t that worried, though. Things would surely be better by the fall, and they would be out there in early September to pick up right where they left off. They were wrong.
Not a single fall sport was played, and students weren’t coming back to campus, it wasn’t safe with the COVID-19 surges that had taken countless lives. Slippery Rock became a ghost town.
Come spring, most of them were going to graduate. They were given the choice: come back and finish what they started or move on and begin their lives. It wasn’t a simple choice. Some people struggle with what they want to eat for breakfast, and these seniors had to make a life-changing decision.
Coach Shawn Lutz wasn’t going to hold them back, but he did want to be able to have one more ride with those players. Lutz, just like them, still had a national title on his mind. That alone was reason enough to come back for some. Lutz was going to push for them to come back, but no matter what they all knew that he supported them and loved them no matter what choice they made.
“It got to a point when we had COVID-19 that I didn’t even know if half of them were going to come back, I had to re-recruit those guys again,” Lutz said.
It was like a game of dominos in the end. Once one decided to come back, so did another one and another one. In total, they brought back 15 seniors: Henry Litwin, Sweeting, Wynn, Trysten McDonald, Dalton Holt, Khadir Roberts, Garrett de Bien, Jake Tecak, Austin Wayt, Evyn Holtz, Andrew Koester, Tim Vernick, Chad Kuhn, Devijan Franklin and Hunter Merritt.
Any other team in the country was lucky to get back a few seniors, but 15 was a large number. Not to mention the fact that most of them were starters in 2019. Among them was Sweeting, who is in the midst of his second season playing for The Rock. Upon his arrival, he noticed how tight the group was.
“First thing I noticed was the bond between the players and coaches, and even the support staff,” Sweeting said. “The love was just genuine.”
Sweeting came on in 2019, and it was a good thing he did. He formed the most dangerous trio of receivers after he made the position switch from running back. That was important in forming one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.
Before Sweeting, Wynn and Litwin got comfortable with each other in 2018. With Wes Hills, who went on to play in the NFL, and Rivers the offense was deadly. The two of them recorded 51 receptions each and totaled for 1,586-yards and 17 touchdown receptions.
They were part of a team that saw Rivers step in for Koester after he got injured. That year is the only year that The Rock hosted the PSAC championship game. They dropped the contest 33-10, and it was the last home game they lost until the semifinals in 2019. The loss against Notre Dame College in the 2018 playoffs is what stuck in Litwin’s mind though.
“Nearly 365 days of constantly replaying that game in [our] head and countless hours of lifting and training, and then finally lining up against them…it was everything I wanted,” Litwin said.
They avenged the loss against them at home in the quarterfinals in 2019, and the picture of Litwin’s hurdle, which was captured by Keegan Beard, went viral around the SRU campus. But this year means the world to all of them. They checked off nearly every box in 2019, but there was still unfinished business.
With that many seniors back, this year had to be their best yet. The team had a lot of expectations coming into the season. But, like a lot of teams this year, the football play was sloppy to begin the season.
It’s hard to go back to playing a full-speed game when two of the classes of players are essentially brand new. The game against Wayne State University to start the season showed that. But you take wins when you can get them, no matter how messy.
Up to the point where The Rock hosted Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) for homecoming, they hadn’t experienced a loss outside of the playoffs since early 2018. They had won 17 straight PSAC West matchups, and the highlight of which was a win over IUP in 2019’s homecoming.
This year’s 48-21 loss hurt. After the game, The Crimson Hawks made sure to stomp the logo in the middle of the field and could be heard blasting “Take Over Your Trap” by Bankroll Fresh. A big win on the road against your biggest rival warrants that. After that, IUP had a clear shot to the PSAC title game.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we needed that loss, but it fueled our fire a little more,” Sweeting said. “That loss humbled us and allowed us to regroup, and like I said I wouldn’t say it was needed, but at the same time it was definitely a learning lesson.”
The way each team responded couldn’t have been more different. The Rock had two straight road games in Erie and made the drive home with wins both times. IUP, who at the time controlled their destiny, dropped both of their games.
In reality, the California University of Pennsylvania (Cal-U) win over IUP set up the most crucial game of the season, which raised them to No. 3 in rankings. Then, Cal-U played at The Rock on senior day. That day, Lutz just wanted to send his guys out the right way.
“The young guys need to [see the way they approach things], and we owe it to them to send them out the right way,” Lutz said.
The win over Cal-U was major for the seniors. With family in attendance for what may have been their last home game, the seniors all showed up. Sweeting, Wynn and Litwin each had a receiving touchdown in the first quarter. The feeling was the complete opposite of what was felt when they last played at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
As things have proceeded, Lutz has realized there isn’t much time left with these seniors. The class that has done so much and helped him solidify himself as one of the best coaches in not just the PSAC, but all of Division II is approaching their final run, and Lutz just wants to cherish every single moment he has with them.
“I enjoy every single day going to practice and the little things, I’m excited to go on a five-hour road trip with them and just have them around in a hotel,” Lutz said. “I’m just going to really try and enjoy the time we have left and not think about it, because it’s something that I hope we have a lot more weeks with them, but I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Looking back through SRU football history, it’ll be hard to find a class of players that have accomplished as much as the seniors have. Three straight PSAC title game appearances have capped them off. Win or lose, their place in SRU football lore is set in stone.
The stories of the players are all unique in their own way. Like Litwin, who went from walk-on to All-American, or Vernick, who played high school ball only a few miles south, at Butler. But together, they’ve created a championship atmosphere with Lutz here at The Rock.
“This senior class is going to go down as one of the greatest in school history, and it’s not three of them but 15 of them,” Lutz said. “I get emotional even thinking about it, because not only are they great football players, but they’re also great men.”
It doesn’t matter how many accolades they accomplish here, they still crave one thing and one thing only. It’s the reason they came back. Come Dec. 18, they want to be the ones hoisting the national title trophy. Nothing else will quench their hunger.