Head coach Mark Maciejewski stood in front of his players and with each tear-jerking statement, the Shippensburg University football team knew its season had finally come to an end.
Pride, grit and determination emblazoned on their sleeves, the Raiders exhumed the qualities of what marks a true champion and — more importantly — a true family. The demoralizing 37–14 defeat at the hands of Winston-Salem State University loomed largely over the heads of this special group on this night, but the bitter taste of defeat was overshadowed by resiliency — this team should not have been here.
SU, picked to finish fourth in the PSAC East, were discounted from the get-go. How does this team get past an opponent it had not beaten in seven years to begin the season? How will this team handle an excruciating task in facing four quality conference opponents in four weeks?
Preseason pollsters took into account the off-and-on success the Raiders built in 2011, but with success also came failure. The defense gave up the homerun play way too much. They were highly suspect in the running game and were hard-pressed at making stops when it mattered most. This team looked good on paper but would those previous flaws hinder the team’s success in 2012?
Quarterback Zach Zulli was ready to prove the doubters wrong from the start.
“I am looking forward to winning the PSAC and becoming a family,” Zulli said in a preseason interview. “We need to do things right for Coach Mac, win 11 games and try to make it to Alabama.”
That proving ground was established from the first week. A gut-wrenching come-from-behind 38–28 victory against Shepherd University, a team that had ransacked the Raiders for the past seven years, was the catalyst to this team’s success. Zulli and the offense, surrounded by a tremendous offensive line and receivers Jacob Baskerville and Trevor Harman, dictated that this Raider team may be unlike the rest.
The wins kept rolling in — Slippery Rock University, East Stroudsburg University, Millersville University, Lock Have University ¬— you name them, SU manhandled them. That four-game gauntlet that many predicted SU to have trouble with in the beginning of the year was swept away with ease. Huge victories against West Chester University and Bloomsburg University catapulted the Raiders to No.1 in the Super Region One rankings and signified that yes, this team was for real.
The defense, which had been held suspect in 2011 annihilated its opposition. Led by leading tackler Cody Fleming and beasts on the defensive line, Jake Metz and Saeed Khateeb, the Raiders instilled fear in opposing offenses. Its best performance came from a 36–20 victory over LIU-Post — a game where the defense carried the team to victory.
That tug-of-war between the offense and defense personified this team. This team formed the bond Zulli called for in the preseason. The Raiders were not an offense and a defense. They were not a team. They were a family.
That family atmosphere carried the Raiders through a devastating loss to Indiana University of Pa. in the PSAC Championship game and into a 58–20 drubbing of BU in the first round of the NCAA Championship Playoffs. During the onslaught, Zulli threw for 479 yards and three touchdowns along with a receiving core that had three receivers with 90 plus yards on the day. A stout defensive performance forced five turnovers.
It seemed as if the Raiders were making true of their quest to vie for a trip to Alabama. However, as fate had it, the Raiders’ season ended unlike it began — with a crushing loss.
The loss cannot subtract from what the team accomplished this season. SU won 11 games (second-most in school history and most since 1981) and either broke or tied 64 school records, including Zulli’s historic 4,747 yards passing and league-leading 54 touchdowns and Jake Metz’ school record of 11.5 sacks. Its playoff victory was the first since 1991 and it cemented a foundation for teams in the future.
That team will look completely different heading into 2013 as the Raiders will need to replace an outstanding group of 13 seniors including Rodney Baltimore, Bryan Barley, Baskerville, Fleming, Frenette, Kevin Herod, Corey Hunt, Saeed Khateeb, Bobby Mullen, Chris Restino, Pat Schuhl, Mark Kahlil Smith and Jeff Tomasetti.
With pride, true grit and determination emblazoned on its sleeves, SU walked out of Bowman Gray Stadium with a somber finish to what has been known as a remarkable 2012 season.