Long able to score, W. Maryland turned corner with its `D'

With Thomas as guide, Green Terror erected its wall brick by brick

November 26, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Although Western Maryland's offense is powerful, having averaged just under 35 points per game this season, it's been that way in Westminster since Tim Keating took over as head coach in 1993.

But the difference between the 17-18-3 record of Keating's first four seasons at WMC and the 31-2 record over the past three is a defense that has given up an average of less than 10 points over those past 33 games.

Five seniors -- Anthony Burgos, Marvin Deal, Rob McCracken, Matt Meiklejohn and Tommy Salecky -- have played a major role in that success, the latest example coming during last Saturday's 20-16 win over Catholic in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Uncharacteristically porous during the first half of that game, the defense allowed only 90 second-half yards by Catholic, whose offense was one of the strongest in Division III this season.

More importantly, with the Green Terror trailing 16-3 at halftime, the defense held its opponent scoreless.

"We said 16 points, no more," said Salecky, who may be in line for his third-straight All-Americahonor.

"We go into every game with one thought," McCracken said. "That's to shut everybody out."

As the Catholic game showed, that's not going to happen all the time. Out of 10 games in 1999, Western Maryland had four shutouts. "We wanted 10, but you take what you can get," Salecky said. The Green Terror came close enough, giving up only 7.7 points per game during the regular season, second best nationally.

Twenty points has been the most scored against Western Maryland this season, and no opponent has more than two touchdowns from scrimmage against the Green Terror.

What makes the defense work? More familiar with the other side of the ball, Keating said he doesn't know, and might not want to know. "I don't meddle, which probably makes it more effective."

Keating can afford such an attitude thanks to his defensive coordinator, Al Thomas, who is in his fourth season at the school. The all-time winningest high school coach in the state at one time -- with seven state championships at such schools as Seneca Valley and Damascus -- Thomas came to Westminster with the mandate of shaping up a defense.

"When I came here, [Keating] and I talked, and I could sense that he respected the fact that I did have 32 years in coaching," Thomas said. "He kinda just said, `Do your thing.' "

It wasn't so easy at first, mainly because Thomas found some players accepting the program's failures. This is Division III, they thought. Why should they work out year-round? Why should they play quite so hard?

Salecky said he noticed the attitude when he arrived after spending an unsatisfactory couple of weeks at Lycoming, a small-school power that Western Maryland was only aspiring to emulate at that point.

"It wasn't at the level of Lycoming. Up there, it was so intense," Salecky said. "I came here and the seniors weren't really willing to put in the work or time and they didn't have the physical capabilities."

Weaknesses showed in a 4-6 record for the Green Terror in 1996, but there were a few bright spots on the defense. Salecky, who had planned to play linebacker, stepped in at nose guard when the incumbent starter quit, and performed well enough to earn second-team All-Centennial Conference honors.

Deal, a high school quarterback, became the team's starting cornerback midway through the season and was an honorable-mention All-Centennial Conference selection. So despite the rocky start, Thomas said, "I knew we had a lot of players coming back and I couldn't believe that we weren't going to be much better the next season."

Those who didn't want to go along with the new dedication were told they were not wanted. New players were welcomed, including Meiklejohn. A onetime player for Thomas at Damascus, he'd flunked out of Frostburg State and was parking cars at Disney World and taken classes at a junior college before deciding to return full-time to school, and football, in 1997.

That season, the Green Terror surprised everyone, going 10-1 with an appearance in the NCAA playoffs. While the offense set a record for points scored -- broken twice since -- the defense allowed only 7.3 points per game. It was passed off as a fluke, but it wasn't.

The next season, with the arrival of junior college transfers McCracken and Burgos, Western Maryland allowed 10.1 points per game. Success has continued this season.

"It's now dawned on people that we're a powerhouse and will continue to be," Salecky said.

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