After 28 years of excellence as head coach of the Slippery Rock university football team, George Mihalik returned to coach “The Rock” to a 23-21 victory against “The Pride” in the Slippery Rock football team’s spring game. “The Pride” was coached by another SRU football great, Jerry Bejbl, the first ever player to have his jersey retired by Rock football.
“This was a blast tonight,” Mihalik said. “To be back here on the sideline with the Green and Whtie brotherhood and the coaching staff, I was on cloud nine.”
“At the end of the day, Slippery Rock won tonight,” SRU football head coach Shawn Lutz said. “The biggest thing I was hoping for was to stay injury free since we battle it out so much in the spring. There was a little drama at the end and the Rock pulled it out. What a fitting night.”
For Slippery Rock, having an up-tempo offense is always a focus and this year Rock football got a big boost in senior guard Ian Park, who transferred to The Rock after starting on the offensive line for Northwestern University for three years.
Park said the spring games are no different between the Big Ten and the PSAC.
“Both games are extremely competitive, everybody gets after it, especially here,” Park said. “Football is football, that’s what I always say.”
“It’s so huge,” senior quarterback Tanner Garry said about Park. “Great player, even better person, can’t express how happy I am to have him here.”
The biggest storyline coming into the game was the position of quarterback, with three players all trying to stake their claim as the starter.
“The spring game is just one practice,” Lutz said. “We’re really going to look at the whole body of work for the quarterbacks. I thought all three did a nice job; they all showed poise, confidence and made some good throws. Augustus (Necastro) did really well from a numbers standpoint, but we got three good quarterbacks. We’re going to play this out a bit in summer camp and then name a starting quarterback. I think it’s a good situation to be in.”
All three quarterbacks were not exclusive to one team, as they all bounced around to get work in with both the first and second-team offenses.
Necastro, a sophomore, threw the ball the most, slinging 32 passes, completing 21 of them for 223 yards and two touchdowns.
Garry finally got his shot at The Rock’s offense after sitting out a year following his transfer from Youngstown State University. Garry completed five of 10 passes 105 yards, including a 40-yard pass to junior receiver Marcus Johnson to set up the game-winning field goal.
“Whenever I first came here, the biggest challenge was learning the offense,” Garry said. “Since I was ineligible, I was down on scout and never really got a chance to run the offense. This spring, I just started trying to learn the best that I could. I still don’t feel fully comfortable yet, I guess that’s a good thing because it means there is room to grow.”
Rounding out the quarterbacks was sophomore Nathaniel Mussleman, who appeared in five games last year for the Rock. Mussleman completed eight of 16 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown.
Slippery Rock had four running backs at their disposal on Friday, not including sophomore Dontez Rash who sat out the game. All four backs performed well.
“That’s a good predicament to be in,” Lutz said about his offensive depth. “We have a lot of running backs. We got a lot of good guys. We have a lot of depth.”
“The Rock” team had freshman Chacar Berry and senior Isiah Neely in the backfield , and the duo combined for almost 100 yards rushing. Berry ran 12 times for 63 yards and a touchdown, while Neely carried the ball seven times for 31 yards.
On “The Pride” side, freshman Braden Fochtman highlighted all running backs with 67 yards rushing, including a game-high 53-yard rush. Sophomore Nassir Weaver also carried the ball twice for 25 yards.
Slippery Rock’s wide receiving core is extremely deep, and it showed with 13 different receivers recording a catch, and ten of those players having multiple catches. Junior receiver Landon Yeartie led “The Pride” in receiving with 72 yards on a game-high six catches, including a point in the first half where “The Pride” completed three straight passes to Yeartie on three straight plays. Sophomore Austin Scott had the second-most catches among all players with five, which netted him 47 yards. Converted quarterback sophomore Matt Shaffer surprised in the spring game with three catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in his first football action in two years.
Freshman Henry Litwin caught the other touchdown for “The Pride” on his only catch of the day being a 25-yarder from Necastro.
For the Rock, Johnson was the star, catching four passes for 96 yards and a touchdown.
“It would be hard to find a better receiver in Division II football.” Lutz said.
Other notable receivers were senior Andrew Bridgeforth who caught two passes for 47 yards, junior Dakota Clanagan catching three passes for 14 yards, and senior Cornelius Raye, who netted 23 yards on two catches.
On the defensive side, junior defensive back Tavaris Sample enjoyed his transition from wide receiver on “The Pride”, recording game highs in tackles (9), solo tackles (4) and assisted tackles (5).
“He had some big hits today, he likes to play the game,” Lutz said. “He did a lot of good things.”
The other player who Lutz had high praise for was freshman linebacker Dylan Whiteman, who also played for “The Pride”.
“He is going to add another dimension for us,” Lutz said. “He’s the leader of the defense.”
Whiteman recorded eight tackles, four of which were solo, and also stepped up on big plays with two and a half tackles for loss and two sacks, setting the other team back a total of 12 yards. Freshman linebacker Tim Vernick, brother of Slippery Rock great Bob Vernick, also performed well at the middle linebacker spot, recording two tackles and a sack. Vernick emphasized that he is “his own person” and that the young Rock defense is excited to show what they are made of.
“We’re so excited, it’s unreal,” Vernick said. “Everyday at practice we’re pumped up, we want to show everybody that we can go out and compete and that we’re the real deal.”
“The Pride” had two other standouts in junior defensive lineman Tim Soave and junior defensive back Kyle Hall. Soave showed up on big plays with two tackles for loss and a sack. Hall provided consistency for the defense with five tackles, one and a half tackles for loss, and a pass break-up.
For “The Rock”, it was a slew of new faces that impressed on the defensive side. True-freshman linebacker Jesse Nwabeze-Ogbo led his team in tackles with seven, one of which was a tackle for loss which he forced a fumble on. That fumble was recovered by freshman defensive back Cameron Brookins, who returned it 43 yards. Brookins also broke up a pass and recorded five tackles, one for a loss.
Two other “The Rock” defenders recorded five tackles, a pair of sophomores in defensive back Cameron Spadecene and lineback Corey Garry, cousin of quarterback Tanner.
Senior defensive end and all-time SRU sack leader Marcus Martin did not play.
Sophomore kicker for “The Rock” Jake Chapla led all scorers on the day, scoring 10 points with one point-after-attempt converted and three field goals, including a 48-yarder to end the first half. Chapla also connected on a 26-yard field goal at the end of regulation to win the game for “The Rock”.
“It was really special,” said Mihalik. “I’m so proud of these guys and to wear the green and white. Once you start at this program, you never leave.”
“You cannot waste a day,” Lutz said. “We have to capitalize on every day to be a champion.”
The Spring game wrapped up spring practices for Slippery Rock, who will continue with summer workouts until training camp starts in August. Slippery Rock begins their season on September 2nd at Kentucky State University.