WESTMINSTER — WESTERN MARYLAND College's Dale Sprague can match cliches with any football coach in the country. During the last four years he kept telling his team that sooner or later the ball would bounce its way.
Trite and true.
Last Saturday the Green Terrors beat Dickinson, then ranked No. 3 in Division III Eastern football. It improved their record to 4-1-1, and the four wins match Sprague's victory total in his first four years at Western Maryland. A lack of talent and mistakes led to a majority of the losses, but some were the result of plain bad luck.
In 1987, Western Maryland's non-winning streak reached 29 games when it failed to convert two-point conversions and lost consecutive one-point decisions to Franklin & Marshall and FDU-Madison.
In 1988, FDU-Madison fumbled into its own end zone and recovered for the winning touchdown. The failure to convert a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line led to another Western Maryland loss to Gettysburg.
Last year, Swarthmore and Randolph-Macon frustrated the Green Terrors by getting the winning points with two and 12 seconds remaining, respectively.
That 2-8 season ended with Western Maryland's seventh straight loss to arch-rival Johns Hopkins, which left Sprague with a four-year record of 4-35-1. He wasn't around for the end, as stress-induced stomach cramps sent him to the hospital.
The emotions -- and the breaks -- were more pleasant last Saturday, as the win over Dickinson was Western Maryland's first successful Homecoming since 1984. The visitors committed eight turnovers and junior tailback Eric Frees got the winning touchdown with 52 seconds left before more than 4,000 fans. Fifteen minutes later, Sprague sought a quiet spot on the bench.
"I need to gear down," Sprague said to no one in particular.
Sprague has had great difficulty getting Western Maryland football in gear. The Green Terrors were a regional power for Jim Hindman in 1978 and '79. The players he left behind were 5-3-1 for Jack Molesworth in 1981, and that's the last time Western Maryland had a winning record. In 1986, Sprague came in and inherited an 11-game losing streak.
"It's been difficult for Dale," athletic director Dick Carpenter said. "He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been associated with, but Dale realized when he was hired it was going to take some time. We're having fun right now, but this has been a struggle."
The program's woes were the main reason Sprague wasn't worried about his job.
"I didn't have to beg for my job after last season," Sprague said. "Dr. Carpenter is a patient man. He's the one who kept telling me it would take time, and that's hard to hear, because I'm an impatient person."
Sprague had always been associated with winning programs.
He played defensive back at American International in Springfield, Mass., then worked as an assistant coach at five small-college programs before coming to Westminster. Western Maryland football had a total of two wins to show from 1985-88, but after each of his seasons Sprague was able to recruit prospects with the lure of playing right away.
Senior Mike Hamm, a four-year starter at quarterback, holds most of the Green Terrors' passing records. Frees needs 14 yards to become Western Maryland's all-time rushing leader, and Robbie Johnson, a sophomore from North Carroll, is just as talented. Junior Andy Steckel, like Frees a product of Ephrata, Pa., is rewriting the pass-catching records.
The defense allowed 34 points a game last season, but only 42 in its last four games. Linebackers Jim Webster and Karl Reisenweber, a sophomore out of Mount St. Joseph, are piling up big numbers, and the secondary has been bolstered by two players who sat out last year.
Sprague invited fewer players to preseason camp -- 12 lettermen from 1989 are no longer with the team -- and toughened the regimen for the ones who showed up. He had always talked about the confidence he had in his players, and now they deserve it. With 12 minutes left in the Dickinson game, the Green Terrors went for it on a fourth-and-one from their own 36-yard line.
Frees went behind left tackle Chris Campbell for 3 yards.
"That play says more about the confidence I have in this team than anything else can," Sprague said.