It wasn’t the trip Shawn Lutz was expecting.
“It was a quiet bus ride home,” said the eighth-year Slippery Rock coach of the nearly five-hour and more than 290-mile drive Saturday evening after his team dropped a 31-7 decision in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game at Kutztown. “Sometimes when you go through adversity, you bring the best out of everybody.”
Lutz is hoping that will be the case when the NCAA Division II playoffs commence next weekend.
Slippery Rock (10-1), the fourth-ranked team in the nation, was placed as the No. 4 seed in Super Regional One and will face PSAC East at-large bid East Stroudsburg (9-2) in a first-round game Saturday at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
It is the fifth consecutive season the Rock has qualified for the NCAA playoffs, which is the second longest active streak in the country.
Before losing to Kutztown, previously undefeated PSAC West champion Slippery Rock was the favorite to receive the top seed in the Super Regional and a first-round bye.
Instead, Great Midwest Athletic Conference champion Tiffin (11-0) earned the Super Regional’s top spot and will await the winner of next weekend’s game between the Rock and Warriors in Slippery Rock.
“You know what? We are dancing and there’s only 28 teams in the country that make it,” Lutz said after the Division II bracket was released Sunday night by the NCAA. “We’re excited. Anytime you have the opportunity to be dancing and get in the national playoffs, we’re excited about it.”
After roaring through the first 10 games of its regular season without much adversity, Slippery Rock’s PSAC-best offense never got on track against Kutztown’s top-ranked defense in the conference.
The Rock failed to record a first-quarter first down against the Golden Bears and was held without a score until quarterback Brayden Long and receiver Kyle Sheets — the PSAC’s top passing duo — connected for a 31-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left in the game.
Lutz said his team will use its only loss, during which it conceded 275 rushing yards on defense, as motivation moving forward.
“We need to own it,” he said. “We just didn’t play well. We’re going to do that, and now we are excited about the opportunity to get a home playoff game in the first round. We’ve got a tough opponent in East Stroudsburg coming here. We’ve never played them.
“We’re excited to show them that, hey, we’re still a damn good team,” Lutz added. “We had a good season. We’ve got to man up.”
East Stroudsburg likely punched its ticket into the postseason with a 37-30 victory Saturday against California University of Pennsylvania. The Warriors’ lone losses this season came against Division II playoff qualifiers Kutztown and Shepherd.
“They’re up and coming, man,” Lutz said. “What I do know of them, defensively, they’ve got a great defensive line. They are stout on the d-line, they get to the quarterback, good linebackers. They take some chances. They get turnovers. Offensively, they have a big offensive line that likes to run the football.
“This is the first time them being in the playoffs for a very long time,” he added. “I think they’re going to be excited. The biggest key for us is we’re playing at home and we’re pretty good at home.”
East Stroudsburg boast’s the third-best defense in the PSAC, averaging just 295.8 yards allowed per game, with a conference-best 19 interceptions.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Sergei Felizor leads the Warriors defense with 102 tackles, 10 for a loss, and two sacks.
Defensive linemen Dasean Dixon, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound redshirt sophomore, and Deshawn McCarthy, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound fifth-year senior, lead East Stroudsburg with six sacks each. Graduate student defensive end Aidan Heyward also has collected 4½ sacks.
Fifth-year senior defensive back Jahmere Crompton leads the Warriors’ secondary with four interceptions, while TJ Harris and Shavar Hussett have three a piece.
Although the Warriors are stout against the run, conceding just 83.1 yards per game, opponents have found some success in the passing game, with an average of 212.7 yards allowed per game.
That should bode well for Slippery Rock, which boasts the PSAC’s top passer in Long and receiver in Sheets.
Long has passed for a conference-best 3,061 yards, a 68.4 completion percentage, 33 touchdowns and just five interceptions, while Sheets has 63 catches for 1,028 yards and 15 scores.
The duo will look to lead Slippery Rock’s offense in a showdown with East Stroudsburg’s rushing attack.
The Warriors have rushed for 1,895 yards as a team, good for third best in the PSAC, and 19 touchdowns. Redshirt junior running back Tyriq Lewis leads the way with 773 yards and eight touchdowns, while sophomore Tahir Mills has rushed for 434 yards and five scores.
“The goal in our program is to compete for a national championship,” Lutz said. “The goal right now is to win the regional championship, and that’s what we want to do, but first we have to worry about East Stroudsburg. We will take it one game at a time.”
NCAA Division III
In a season of firsts, Grove City had another one Sunday night.
For the first time in school history, the undefeated Wolverines came together on campus to watch the NCAA Division III playoff bracket selection show and heard their school’s name called as an automatic qualifier after winning the Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship.
Grove City (10-0) will travel to Selinsgrove Saturday to face Landmark Conference champion Susquehanna (10-0) in a first-round game. Kickoff is set for noon.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 20 in the country, while the River Hawks are No. 10.
“To see Grove City there in the national picture, we’re just excited and blessed to have an opportunity to continue to compete,” said Wolverines coach Andrew DiDonato, a Bridgeville native and South Fayette graduate. “No matter who you play at this point, we know they’re going to be a great program. We’re just excited about the opportunity.”
Balance has been the key for Grove City, which earned its first national ranking, NCAA postseason berth and undefeated 10-win season in school history this fall.
The Wolverines’ roster, which is replete with 36 former WPIAL players, has several names atop the conference on offense and defense.
West Allegheny product Nico Flati was the PAC’s leading rusher with 1,065 yards and eight touchdowns on 223 carries, while Clayton Parrish added 508 yards and 13 scores for Grove City.
Quarterback Logan Pfeuffer, a Peters Township graduate, was one of the conference’s top passers with 1,714 yards, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His favorite target was receiver Scott Fraser, a Knoch product, who caught 59 passes for 877 yards and nine scores.
Just a sophomore, linebacker Ben Bladel, a Moon product, is already one of the PAC’s top pass rushers. He has a conference-best 15 sacks, which is tied for a school single-season record, to go along with 21 tackles for a loss and 43 tackles.
Penn-Trafford product Jack Jollie is the Wolverines’ leading tackler with 68, while South Fayette product Ryan Fleming has 58, Bethel Park native Jason Muench has 48, and Penn-Trafford product Gabe Dunlap has 45.
Dunlap and Montour graduate Dominic Magliocco have a team-high three interceptions each for Grove City.
“We had a pretty tough schedule in our conference in the beginning of the year,” DiDonato said. “We just said, ‘If we stick to who we are, we feel we can win each and every week.’ Now that we’re in the tournament, our message is just to not do anything different, but just stay focused, and do exactly what we have needed to do to get to this point.”
Susquehanna will undeniably be Grove City’s biggest test to date.
The River Hawks boast the Landmark Conference’s best offense and defense.
Running back Tommy Grabowski, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore, has rushed for 963 yards and 13 touchdowns, which is good for tops in the Landmark Conference in both categories.
Susquehanna has rushed for a conference-best 243.1 yards and 41.2 points per game.
A dual-threat quarterback, Josh Ehrlich has thrown for 1,472 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for 792 yards and eight scores. His top target in the passing game is receiver Kyle Howes, who has 780 yards and nine touchdowns.
The River Hawks defense was equally as dominant in its conference, conceding just 12.9 points, 80.3 rushing yards and 139.9 passing yards per game to go with 28 sacks.
Junior linebacker Garrett Carter has a team-high 53 tackles, 10½ for a loss, with five sacks and two forced fumbles in eight games. He has not played the last two games because of an injury.
Senior defensive lineman Jake Schultes has 4½ sacks with two interceptions and 34 tackles for Susquehanna, while linebacker Drew Robinson has three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 58 tackles.
“It’s a great program that’s consistently been there,” DiDonato said. “Them being in Pennsylvania as well, I haven’t seen them on tape a ton, but certainly I’ve followed their success. We have a ton of respect for them.”