Green Terror glad to be home

Western Md., Catholic meet in Div. III playoff

November 20, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

For the first time, the Western Maryland football team is playing host to a playoff game in NCAA Division III. Instead of a five-hour bus ride or a three-hour plane ride, the players will have had only rest and preparation before today's noon game against Catholic.

The winner will face Trinity (10-0) -- the South Region's top seed -- in the second round next weekend in San Antonio.

The home game meant more time for the hoopla to build, for teachers and classmates to ask the Green Terror players about the Cardinals (9-1), who have won 29 regular-season games over the past three years, compared with Western Maryland's 30.

And it's a reward for fans who have seen the team win its past 19 games at Bair Stadium.

"It's nice to be able to give back to the fans," Green Terror receiver Teron Powell said.

But Western Maryland (10-0) has a few reasons to temper its excitement. There are injuries to overcome, a powerful offense to stop and the past two years of stale postseason performances to live down.

So, no party hats in Westminster.

Mindful of past failures, the team practiced well into the darkness and chill Wednesday night, aided by portable lights.

"It's much more businesslike," Green Terror coach Tim Keating said, comparing this week to those leading up to playoff losses in 1997 and 1998. "These guys recognize what happened the first two times and they don't want that repeated. So the excitement is not the same."

What the Green Terror found in its past playoff experience is what the songstress finds when her voice starts cracking at the Apollo. The biggest stage can ruin an unsteady performer.

Western Maryland, after feasting on then-dubious competition in the Centennial Conference, pushed national runner-up Lycoming in 1997's first round. But when the opponent pushed back, the Green Terror fell apart and lost, 27-13.

The next season, the Green Terror swore that things would be different, but they were the same.

The regular-season winning streak increased to 20. Then in the first round of the playoffs, Western Maryland suffered a 30-20 loss as Trinity's quarterback threw for 506 yards and four touchdowns and Green Terror quarterback Ron Sermarini, usually a Houdini in cleats, was sacked seven times.

Linebacker Matt Meiklejohn blamed the 1997 loss on first-time anxiety. The unwillingness to analyze the first loss might have led to the second loss.

"I don't think anybody took [the Lycoming loss] as a learning experience," Meiklejohn said. "There are things we can do differently to win this game."

"Now, we know what to expect," said linebacker Tommy Salecky, Centennial Conference Player of the Year. "We want to go all the way."

Once again, Western Maryland cruised in 1999.

Sermarini set league marks for completion percentage (68.6), total offense (2,920 yards) and rushing yardage by a quarterback (851). The defense was the second-stingiest in the nation, allowing 7.7 points a game, and it's been the second-best at forcing turnovers, with 2.3 per game.

But the Centennial Conference, stronger than in years past, has the Green Terror better prepared for the playoffs than it's been in the past. Four conference teams had records of 6-4 or better, including 9-1 Ursinus, which also earned an NCAA appearance.

Whereas Western Maryland never trailed in a regular-season game during the 1997 and 1998 campaigns, Ursinus and Muhlenberg provided nervous moments this season. Muhlenberg led into the final five minutes in its game against the Green Terror.

"We've kind of taken some games for granted," Meiklejohn said. "[Those games] brought us to the level where we find that we can't take anyone for granted."

In a sense, the Green Terror has paid for this increased intensity. Players are banged up as the team prepares for the Cardinals, who suffered similar first-round playoff losses the past two seasons -- first to Trinity and then to Lycoming.

Though freshman tailback Jemel Johnson has filled in nicely with 182 rushing yards in the past two games, the team will miss starter Joe Kendorski, who's been hampered the entire season with a knee injury.

Defensive lineman Bryan Fogelsanger and linebacker Derrick Gwyn are nursing injuries, which adds to the concern about Catholic's offense, which is good for 481.5 yards in total offense per game, seventh in the country.

Cardinals quarterback Derek McGee can hand off to running back Andrew Notafrancesco, who ran for 1,270 yards and 19 touchdowns, third-best nationally. Or he can throw to Mike Hunter, a second-team All-America choice in 1998 who has 160 catches over the past two seasons.

"They have a wide-open offense," Keating said. "I fear their run as much as their pass."

Though Catholic's defense is not as strong as his own, Keating said he is worried about the Cardinals' pass rush, particularly with linebacker Brian Hee and defensive end Richard Change, who combined for 13 sacks this season.

"They blitz like crazy on defense," Keating said. "That could cause us problems. [Change] is probably the finest defensive end I've seen in a while."

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