|Dave Davis had been a coach at Ferrum for nearly 25
Photo by Ryan Tipps, D3sports.com
Dave Davis of Ferrum and Jim Sypult of Methodist have a combined 35 years of head coaching experience at their respective schools. That number will never change.
They are the longest serving coaches among teams in the USA South – having begun their careers long before any conference affiliation even existed. They’ve had ups and downs, and though both teams struggled this season and remained below .500, Davis and Sypult are leaving on their own terms, at a time that’s right for them.
“I’ve just been kind of worn out and exhausted and tired. It’s just the time in my life to make this move,” said Davis, who, like Sypult, announced before the 2010 season that he was going to step down. “I think it’s a good time for me, and it’s probably a good time for Ferrum after this season.”
Davis spent a decade as a Ferrum assistant before taking over the helm after the 1993 season, which saw the departure of legendary Panthers coach Hank Norton. The team was also coming off of the years of future NFL running back Chris Warren.
“When I took over, I didn’t want to try to replace Hank, and I didn’t want to try to be Hank,” Davis said. “I just wanted to take Ferrum [to a new place]. It was in kind of a different stage in the development of the college.”
But the shoes he had to fill were only a piece of those early struggles: His wife had cancer and passed away shortly after Davis’ first season wrapped up.
Davis picked himself up and said he focused on the game and tried to adjust to the changing landscape of Division III football. The NCAA was changing the rules on academic standards and transfers in the mid-1990s. Recruiting took a hit -- something that would deteriorate further as more things changed and more teams in Virginia and North Carolina added football.
“The recruiting process became a different animal,” he said. “We used to own the state of Virginia.”
Through the years, Norton has been a shoulder for Davis to lean on. Davis said they chat a couple of times a week. And sure, they talk about things like family and fishing, but a lot of times they’re talking about football. Davis has even talked with Norton about that feeling of being “worn out” and needing a change in life.
At Methodist, Sypult, too, points to the need for change. He said he’s stepping down for personal reasons but that this move isn’t a retirement from football. For his Methodist career, he simply thinks “it’s time to end it.”
|Jim Sypult couldn't attend the USA South media day
in person this year, but spoke via videotape. All of the coaches
said they regretted his absence.
Methodist athletics photo
Nearly two decades ago, Sypult inherited a team that was having problems both in terms of performance and mentality. As he departs, he said, “I think I’m leaving the glass a little more full” than my predecessor did.
The Monarchs head coach, much like Ferrum’s, said being a good fit is the secret to longevity and success as a coach.
“You have to find a place that fits you, a place where you feel comfortable. And where they have the same type of people where you are,” he said. “I was willing to roll my sleeves up and do the work that had to be done.”
When Sypult took the reins, he had just one assistant and a little money to pay some part-timers. But year after year, the support from the administration and others grew. He tried to raise the standards of the team and make it more competitive. Now, he has eight assistant coaches on his roster.
“I don’t look at it in terms of wins and losses as much as I did when I first started coaching,” he said. “I’ve grown up a whole lot, and I’ve matured a whole lot.”
Methodist laid out a concise and straight-forward plan for the coaching transition. From the time Sypult said he was stepping down, it was decided that associate head coach and offensive coordinator Dave Eavenson would be the successor.
Eavenson was a freshman when Sypult came to Methodist, and now the two are close friends. Eavenson’s coaching experience started very early: He was named the team’s receivers coach his sophomore year because the volunteer coach was based at nearby Fort Bragg and got deployed.
Eavenson has been on the Methodist staff for 10 years, and his history with the team made the decision to promote him an easy one. And, as Sypult would say, Eavenson is a good fit for the school.
“What we did was we got it set up right so that we could recruit,” Sypult said about the decision at the beginning of this season. “I was going to be here one more year. It wasn’t going to be like they’d walk you in and there was going to be a new coach. [The incoming players] knew what they were getting into: I was going to do it one more year, and right there was your next head coach.”
Sypult, who has a beach house outside Wilmington, N.C., said he won’t be around the team much after this season. “You need to find new pastures and let the guy who’s taking over have his own personality with the team,” he said.
Davis’ assessment for the right kind of successor doesn’t differ too much from Sypult’s.
“I hope that whoever they hire knows and understands Ferrum,” he said. “Ferrum’s a different place in terms of recruiting and in terms of the caliber of talent you’d expect to get. I think somebody needs to understand what Ferrum’s all about and don’t come in here with preconceived notions that I’m going to do it this way. You have to be flexible enough to understand what Ferrum is and adjust to what Ferrum needs.”
The final season for both coaches was a struggle. Close losses dotted both of their results. Indicative of this fact was the Oct. 9 matchup between Ferrum and Methodist, which was played to a three-overtime 51-45 finale, with the Panthers walking away the victors.
This year, “I knew what I was getting into,” said Sypult, whose team finished 2-8. “I knew that I was going to have seven or eight freshman starters.” Still, he stepped into the season instead of waiting to go out with a conference championship team. He said he embraced this final challenge.
Sypult notes that some of his most difficult seasons are linked to the uncertainty of Division III football. Without scholarships and with college costs and academic standards, retaining students is a yearly battle. His hardest times came when he and his staff invested a year or two to develop an athlete, and then the player left school.
Davis, too, said this was one of his most difficult season’s ever. His team ended 4-6, losing four of those games by just one score. It’s one of those years “that takes a lot out of you,” he said.
Still, both coaches had planned their departure since the beginning of the season. It’s their time, on their terms.
Sypult, who said he has been involved in football as a player or coach for nearly 50 years, quipped about one perspective on the decision to step down:
“When you leave, leave leading the parade. Don’t let the posse chase you out of town.”
Playing into the postseason
The Mid-Atlantic has a whopping six teams going to the NCAA playoffs. Here’s a little bit about each:
Wesley got the No. 1 seed not just in the bracket but also in the overall playoffs. That means, if the Wolverines keep winning, they’ll play at home until the Stagg Bowl. If they make it to the semifinals, they’ll play the winner of the North Central Bracket, which also has defending national UW-Whitewater in it. Wesley has the top defense in the country statistically and has been tested against some tough teams, including Delaware Valley and Salisbury. The team also averages more than 42 points per game and nearly 500 yards of offense. Revisit the Nov. 2 Around the Mid-Atlantic column to hear coach Mike Drass and defensive lineman Chris Mayes talk about the season.
On Saturday, Wesley squares off against the Centennial’s automatic qualifier, No. 8-seed Muhlenberg. The Mules are coming off a loss against cross-town rival Moravian and haven’t really been a dominant team this year: Four of their seven wins have come by one score or less. The stars are running back Terrence Dandridge and linebacker Pat McDonough. Muhlenberg has had a great and surprising season, but it will be unlikely that it will continue past Saturday.
Wesley’s conference-mate Salisbury picked up one of three Pool B bids and has a home as a No. 5 seed in the Mount Union Bracket (what used to be known as the East Region Bracket). The Gulls line up against Delaware Valley, a difficult Round 1 matchup that happened because DelVal lost this past weekend, bumping the Aggies down the bracket from what almost certainly would have been a No. 2 seed. Salisbury is one of the best triple option teams in the country, demonstrated by the 464 yards of offense per game, only 56 of which come from passing. The Gulls are a tough team, but have lost close games against their best opponents -- Wesley and Hampden-Sydney -- this season. Salisbury doesn’t have a real signature win this season, but if there ever was a time to get one, the playoffs surely are it.
The Sea Gulls aren’t the only option team in the region to make the playoffs. ODAC winner Washington and Lee is a sixth seed and will travel to PAC champion Thomas More. As you read in last week’s Around the Mid-Atlantic column, W&L has a young team that began to flourish as three-year quarterback Charlie Westfal and a trio of running backs -- Luke Heinsohn, Harrison Hudson and Brett Murray -- matured and gelled with each game. One other area of concern, the secondary, also got better throughout the season, as evidenced by the team’s win over conference-mate and pass-heavy Hampden-Sydney. Now, the Generals have the best combination of offense and defense coming out of Old Dominion.
Hampden-Sydney, who had wins this year over Salisbury and N.C. Wesleyan in nonconference play, drew an at-large bid to the playoffs and will host Montclair State, one of three teams that tied at the top of the NJAC this season. The NJAC had an up year, so H-SC will have its hands full. The Tigers offense that throws for more than 300 yards a game will be challenged by a team that holds opponents to just a third of that number. Hampden-Sydney’s secondary, led by free safety Bill Doody (who was profiled in an Around the Mid-Atlantic story earlier this season), will be called on to keep the Red Hawks’ pass-first approach in check.
Finally we have Christopher Newport, the USA South’s automatic qualifier who nabbed a No. 7 seed and will make the long trip to Texas to play Mary Hardin-Baylor. CNU started the season slow, going 1-4. The first two losses came against Wesley and Salisbury, and the Captains were outscored 92-16. But CNU found its center, finishing 6-1 down the stretch and earning 360 yards a game in conference play. Much of that comes as quarterback Christian Woelfel-Monsivais has improved game to game. CNU and UMHB aren’t unfamiliar to each other, playing a regular-season series in 2006 and 2007; each team won one of the games.
On Friday morning, you’ll be able to see my predictions, along with Pat Coleman’s and Keith McMillan’s, as part of our weekly Triple Take. Not only will we take a stab at picking the winners, we’ll give you our score projections as well.
The NCAA playoffs aren’t the only postseason opportunities afforded to teams in the Mid-Atlantic. The umbrella organization, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, gives several of the teams in this region a chance to play one more. From the Mid-Atlantic, we’ll see Lebanon Valley at Johns Hopkins, Moravian at Wilkes, and Franklin and Marshall at Washington and Jefferson.
The blitz package
Bridgewater quarterback Hagan Driskell completed 20 of his 23 pass attempts for 274 yards in a 38-28 win over Catholic. Driskell, a senior, also set a school record with 17 consecutive completions.
Keone Kyle broke a school record with five rushing touchdowns in Shenandoah’s 44-16 win over Greensboro.
Kody Smith made his debut as a starter for Gettysburg, and the sophomore threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the Bullets’ 57-35 win at home against Franklin and Marshall.
Looking back at the Games to Watch
And so the regular season comes to an end, with the six aforementioned Mid-Atlantic teams headed to the postseason.
This may not have been the smoothest of my four years as the region’s columnist. With the twists and turns of the season, some of it is to be expected with the ebb and flow of teams’ performances. At D3football.com, we also publicly put our predictions on display, whether they’re the preseason ones in Kickoff, the weekly offerings in Friday morning’s Triple Take or the Games to Watch, which I’ll be revisiting in the space below. That kind of accountability means that we expose ourselves to our shortcomings as well as our successes.
Still, it has been a fun year. I saw a couple of great games and heard some wonderful stories from various corners of the region. I hope that I’ve been able to bring you, as readers, a little closer to what goes on in the Mid-Atlantic.
And, even if you don’t have a dog in the playoff fight, don’t go too far as D3football.com follows the teams toward the National Championship. There will be lots of Road to Salem feature stories to pique your interest.
And for those of you who live relatively close to Salem, Va., come to the Stagg Bowl. I don’t care if Mount Union and UW-Whitewater play for the sixth time. Come, get your fill from the Bridgewater fans’ Stone Station tailgate, listen to D3football.com’s pregame broadcast in the parking lot and celebrate the camaraderie that makes Division III great.
Fans come from all over the country to the Stagg Bowl. And it will be an eye-opener to see how great the top teams in D-III are. You won’t even recognize that this isn’t major-college ball. It is an amazing and memorable experience.
With that, I close up my column for the season. I will still have e-mail handy for those who have questions, concerns or observations about the playoffs. It will be exciting. As I said above, I will briefly revisit those games that I picked back in the preseason as being the Games to Watch. Some were dead-on; others fell short of their billing. But when pride and memories are at stake, every game counts for these players.
N.C. Wesleyan at Salisbury (SU won 13-7): Both teams started the season as likely postseason contenders, and this game was going to be a telling one. As it turned out, N.C. Wesleyan fell about one game shy of playoff dreams; meanwhile, Salisbury has more to look forward to. Most telling, perhaps, was that this was each team’s lowest scoring game of the season -- and it was far below their season averages.
Ursinus at Franklin and Marshall (UC won 10-7): Both teams soared high this season but fell short of winning the Centennial. For teams that relied heavily on offense throughout most weeks, this conference-opening showdown was all about defense. What was also unexpected was that these teams picked up enough blemishes along the way to knock both out of Pool C contention.
Johns Hopkins at Randolph-Macon (R-MC won 41-37): This was a game I highlighted not for playoff implications but rather because it was simply a great matchup between two very good teams. It’s the kind of game I enjoy seeing teams schedule. Both were fairly evenly matched, as the final score indicated, so it was a tough game but didn’t smack of over-scheduling. And most all of the players were healthy at this point in the season.
Delaware Valley at Wesley (Wesley won 21-17): The intensity of this nonconference matchup was clear and had all the hallmarks of a playoff-like atmosphere. It also lived up to the hype, with Wesley connecting for a touchdown pass in the waning minutes to earn the win under Justin Sottilare, a former backup quarterback who was making just his second start of the season.
Wesley at Capital (Wesley won 42-21): Kudos to Wesley for scheduling a game against an OAC team; and kudos to Capital for agreeing to it. The Crusaders, however, had a somewhat down year, and it was clear early on that they weren’t going to compete for their conference title. Still, Wesley ground out the win and kept pace toward their Pool B bid. The Wolverines were even better tested against Salisbury later in the season, another game that would have fit comfortably on this Games to Watch list.
Christopher Newport at Shenandoah (CNU won 28-13): Going into this Oct. 2 game, Shenandoah wasn’t having the breakout year I expected, nor did Christopher Newport appear to have built itself back to its usual strength. But this game had a different kind of meaning -- both teams were winless at this point, and both were really itching for success. CNU came away with the win and launched itself on a run toward the conference title.
Bridgewater at Randolph-Macon (BC won 31-26): After a few stumbles, pride was on the line as the middle of the ODAC pack battled it out in the first week of November. We saw more than 750 yards of combined offense, and Eagles’ receiver Tyler Beiler lit up the scoreboard with touchdown receptions of 70 and 78 yards. Bridgewater also returned two interceptions for scores. No, the conference title wasn’t on the line here like I predicted, but it did produce one heckuva game.
Averett at N.C. Wesleyan (NCWC won 28-13): Averett fizzled midway through the season. They started 4-1, then lost four of their next five games. N.C. Wesleyan, with just one in-conference loss, was in the hunt till the very end, but a loss to Christopher Newport meant the mountain wasn’t a likely one they’d climb. So this game didn’t have the luster I had projected.
Muhlenberg at Moravian (Moravian won 14-13): Moravian ended the year as arguably the best team in the Centennial. In the final two weeks, they knocked off Ursinus and rival Muhlenberg. That is thanks in large part to the offense led by Matt Johnson, a mobile quarterback who has been able to throw as well as run. He took over the starting position midseason and has set the Greyhounds up for a solid run next season.
Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney (H-SC won 31-28): With a Pool C bid on the line, the one-loss Tigers had more to play for than did the two-loss Yellow Jackets. And H-SC took the lead late in the second half and kept momentum to propel themselves not only into the playoffs but into a Round 1 home game, too. For four years now, The Game has been renewed with excitement, and this year didn’t disappoint.
I would be happy to hear from anyone who has questions or feedback regarding the Around the Mid-Atlantic column or Division III football in general. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I invite you to talk about players and performances on the message board’s Around the Mid-Atlantic thread.