They say all good things must come to an end, but for the Red Raiders, that end came sooner than they hoped.
In its first playoff game in five years, Shippensburg University’s football team took on the Golden Rams from West Chester University on Saturday, Nov. 18, in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
It was a revenge game for the Red Raiders, (10–2), as they suffered their only loss of the regular season on Oct. 7 to the Golden Rams, 37-27, at a packed Seth Grove Stadium.
SU looked to have a different result in the playoff atmosphere, but was unable to get much momentum going on offense on a very rainy and windy day. West Chester, (9-3), again got the best of SU, defeating the Red Raiders 27-6, and ending their season.
SU quarterback Ryan Zapoticky was under pressure all day from the Golden Rams defense and had to make several plays with his legs. He finished 16-of-42 for 162 yards with one rushing touchdown in the loss.
“No matter the outcome I am proud of them all,” SU head coach Mark Maciejewski said. “This group worked really hard all year and they just had that. The seniors were a big part of that. I’m really proud of them and we just didn’t play well today.”
The rain made it very hard to catch the ball, especially for the Red Raiders. Several drives stalled when an open receiver dropped a pass on third down.
“I’m not sure we did a great job of adapting [to the weather conditions] on both sides of the ball,” Maciejewski said. “Defensively, tackling was a huge issue for us with sliding off of people, so I don’t think we did a very good job of that and it sure didn’t help us.”
The game was defined by running plays for both teams, as both the Red Raiders and the Golden Rams had explosive running backs in Cole Chiappialle and Jarel Elder, respectively. Elder had the better day of the two, as Chiappialle finished with 17 yards on nine carries and Elder had 110 yards on 29 attempts.
From the get-go, it was difficult for SU to string good plays together in the first half. The offensive struggles prompted Maciejewski to go for it on fourth down early in the game and the team was successful at first, but it turned the ball over on downs on SU’s second drive of the game.
It was a completely different story for the Golden Rams, who put on an offensive clinic in the half. West Chester used a combination of both its quarterbacks throughout the game, both of whom were very effective.
The Red Raiders struggled mightily in the first half covering the deep ball. Three of the Golden Rams’ four touchdowns came on pass plays of more than 25 yards.
“We were uncharacteristic on defense of not being disciplined with our responsibilities,” Maciejewski said.
It was hard for the Red Raiders to recover after a second quarter in which the Golden Rams outgained them on offense by a 186–30 margin, which saw the Rams score two touchdowns, giving them a 21–0 lead into halftime. The defense made up for it in the second half, keeping the West Chester offense at bay the entire third quarter and for most of the fourth.
After having to punt the ball on eight consecutive drives, the Red Raider offense got its motor running for the first time midway through the fourth quarter. Zapoticky continued his effectiveness scrambling out of the pocket, picking up 20 yards on a run to the West Chester 41-yard line. Zapoticky then connected with Winston Eubanks for the first time since the first quarter for 15 yards on third down, setting up fourth down.
The Red Raiders went for it and Zapoticky connected with Abel Hoff for 13 yards to the West Chester 21-yard line, continuing the best offensive drive of the day for SU.
Zapoticky once again took the game in his hands and scrambled out of the pocket on the ensuing play, finding the end zone for the first and only score for the Red Raiders, ending West Chester’s bid for a shutout. With just more than eight minutes left in the game.
That would prove to be the final margin, as the Golden Rams shut down any other attempts by SU to make a comeback. The scoring drive was a picture of the juggernaut offense that had been on display several times in the regular season and not the one that had struggled mightily in the poor field conditions.
Eubanks was not as explosive as he had been in several games in the regular season, but he was able to gain a good chunk of yards on a pair of catches, finishing with 42 yards. Fellow receiver Hoff had one of the best games of his young career, posting six catches for 64 yards.
A bright spot on defense for the Red Raiders was safety Richard Sheler, who finished the game with 12 tackles and one interception late in the first half. Linebacker Tig Spinelli also had a strong performance, finishing with 11 tackles, including two tackles-for-a-loss.
The game was SU ninth playoff game in school history and first since the 2012 season. The season was also one of only five 10-win seasons in school history.
The game was also the final game for a key senior class that includes Chiappialle, defensive backs Kevin Taylor II and Cheatham, as well as Zapoticky.
Zapoticky finishes his career with 7,102 passing yards, which is good enough for second in SU history, while also throwing for 62 touchdowns. He also ran for a quarterback school-record 1,259 yards in his career.
Chiappialle finishes his career after transferring from Penn State, finishing with 1,279 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in two seasons.
“I think it’s pretty evident of what they contributed to this family,” Maciejewski said. “The thing that those seniors did was that they bought in, and that was huge. They are very important to us and they were important to this season with their leadership and their focus and work ethic.”
After the game, Maciejewski told his players to reflect on the positives of a tremendous season, and to try to avoid looking back on what could have been.
“I told our guys to look at all the good things that happened this year and to try not to think about the bad stuff,” he said. “There were so many good things that happened with those seniors.”
With the Red Raiders season in the books, the team will now focus on having another strong spring that catapulted the team to new heights in 2017.
“We will just keep working and go from there with it,” Maciejewski said. “At the end of the day it comes down to our family and the love that is there.”