It’s been a long time since The Rock football team had their season come to a close before the end of November. For the past two seasons, The Rock had two runs, with the second one leading them all the way to the national semifinal against Minnesota State University in 2019. This year didn’t feature a Cinderella story though, and just like that the 2021 season has come to a close.
The season felt like it ran for a long time. Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) football finally returned, and with it came a lot of expectations for The Rock. Coming off of the 2019 season, The Rock expected a national title. With many key pieces returning, the goal was to finish the job that started in 2018, when they played Notre Dame College in the quarterfinals for the regional title.
That didn’t happen though. They did see Notre Dame for a third straight season, and it was once again to determine who would play another week and who would be going home. The clash ended with a 33-25 loss, and The Rock seniors saw their hopes and dreams dashed.
The Rock opened up with a performance at Wayne State University much different than what they had done in 2019. This time they had to make a defensive stand to beat a team that was thirsty to avenge their loss from two years ago.
“The first game, we could have easily lost to Wayne State, and we found a way to win,” Coach Shawn Lutz said.
The Warriors battled but in the end The Rock was too much for them. After that game, there were still a lot of questions surrounding the team. Andrew Koester was at quarterback, and just a few years ago he was the starting quarterback. When he went down early in 2018, Roland Rivers III stepped in and never looked back. Now, Koester was trying to prove himself.
The Rock returned home for the first time since the semifinal loss the next week to the tune of over 8,000 people in the stadium. East Stroudsburg University came to town, and again it was a defensive battle. The Rock won the game 22-7, but that’s something they aren’t used to. Games in 2019 weren’t even close and players like Cinque Sweeting and Garrett de Bien didn’t even see the field after halftime.
This year looked as if it was going to be much different and not in a good way. The Rock hosted Lock Haven University the following week and put up the points they’re used to and came out with a 57-7 victory. The defense was backed by their veteran presence but the shutout eluded them for the second game in a row.
It wasn’t until the game against Seton Hill University that The Rock seemed to finally wake up. Over the next three games, they put up 165 points. The highlight came against Clarion University of Pennsylvania. A 75-0 win, and the defense finally got their shutout. In those games, Koester had 14 touchdown passes.
The turning point in The Rock’s season came on homecoming, when Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) came to town. It was the put up or shut up moment for Slippery Rock. In the cold and rainy weather, The Crimson Hawks walked in and dominated The Rock. With the 48-21 win for IUP, they had a clear shot to the PSAC title game, but how The Rock responds to a big game like that is what makes or breaks the team.
“The pivotal time against IUP for homecoming, we were undefeated, and we didn’t play well,” Lutz said. “But what I’m really proud of, is when you lose a game like that to your rivals, it could’ve went the other way, and we didn’t.”
IUP came to Slippery Rock and won the battle, but The Rock won the war. Over the next two weeks, Slippery Rock made two trips to Erie to play Mercyhurst University and Gannon University. IUP played California University of Pennsylvania (Cal-U) and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. The Rock came home with two wins and the Crimson Hawks found themselves reeling after back-to-back losses.
“[The loss to IUP] was hard, I’m not used to losing, but it may have been something we needed because we’ve been spoiled with success,” Lutz said. “It was a getting back to work mentality, and the margin of error, we couldn’t have it because we had to basically run the table if we wanted to achieve our goals and get back to the national playoff, and we didn’t make it easy, but we found a way.”
That way was very difficult. The Rock struggled against Mercyhurst in yet another rainy game, and on the final drive they decided to make a quarterback change. Noah Grover entered the game and led The Rock down the field for a game-winning field goal. The next week he introduced himself formally to the PSAC, and to Gannon in particular.
Eight was the magic number for Grover. That’s the number of touchdown passes he threw against the Golden Knights to break the school record for most in a game and it also set up a winner take all matchup at home against Cal-U. Grover started only four games, but they were all do or die for The Rock and he came through.
“Those were big games he had to play, because we couldn’t lose a game and they were like playoff games,” Lutz said. “He’s an intelligent man and to get a whole spring under his belt, as well as the development of Bradyen Long, is going to be imperative, because you’re only going to get as far as your quarterback can take you.”
Behind Grover, The Rock beat No. 3 Cal-U at home to secure their third straight PSAC title game berth. In his first two games starting, Grover threw for 12 touchdown passes. His introduction was like no other.
“That was senior day and to be able to say your last game at Mihalik-Thompson stadium was winning the west against a good team like Cal-U, it just puts everything into perspective that it was worth for all those guys to come and have that great memory.”
It was players like Henry Litwin who set the tone for the team this season though. Litwin, Sweeting and Jermaine Wynn Jr. all returned to The Rock and formed a trio of receivers. This was the last ride, and Litwin refused to miss it. He came back after the COVID-19 layoff and then played the entirety of the 2021 season with a broken collarbone.
“For a guy to battle through what he did, and not miss a beat and have the season he did is just unreal,” Lutz said. “But if you look at the word we use in this program, relentless, someone who loves the game and will do anything for his team, he’s a guy who is team first and individual accolades second, and it puts the boot print on what we’re trying establish in this program.”
Litwin was one of many key pieces who went down. In the final three games, five to six starters went down. Cal-U saw three ACL injuries occur, and the next week in the PSAC title game The Rock came in and had the next man up mentality.
In that game, Wynn Jr. went down early on, ending his SRU football career. The Rock played catch up almost the entire game against the Golden Bears, who now are playing for the regional title. The Rock lost the game 38-32, and after taking the title on their turf in 2019, Kutztown University got their payback.
Despite injuries piling up, there was a still a job to do. The Rock made the trip to Ohio to face off with Notre Dame College once more, and to end the trilogy the Falcons put away The Rock. Sweeting went out with a bang. When the second half of the game arrived, he was the only one of the trio still on the field. In the game he had a receiving touchdown and a kick return touchdown.
Now that the season has come to an end, The Rock seniors still go down as one of the most decorated classes of all-time. They won three PSAC west titles, one outright PSAC title and made three trips to the national playoffs. They also leave some big shoes to fill.
“The underclassmen have to be the guys now, they have to be that Cinque Sweeting or Jermaine Wynn Jr., and now you can’t be a role player, you have to be the guy,” Lutz said. “They’ve got to step up now immediately and be that leader.”
Along with those guys stepping up, The Rock has a lot of recruiting ahead. Lutz and other coaches will be out looking at high schools for players that they think are going to make an impact. But they’ll also be looking at the transfer portal to fill some gaps with a veteran presence.
“We’ve got to have the depth on our team, and we’ve got some good young guys and we’re going to also look at the transfer portal, and hopefully get a guy here or there,” Lutz said.
The season ended well before The Rock is used to, and that doesn’t sit well with them. Injuries and the COVID-19 layoff could have been used as excuses, but the expectation for Lutz is that his team will find a way to win. The road to next season starts now, and they don’t want to settle for anything less than a national title.
“The staff has got to work relentlessly, and we need to find the guys that our going to buy into our culture and have that relentless approach every day,” Lutz said. “A lot of work [will be done], but I promise you we’ll be back and we’re not going to be satisfied until we achieve that goal of competing for a national championship.”