By Matt Florjancic
With a depleted stable of running backs, the Waynesburg Yellow Jackets coaching staff had to find someone to hand the ball to in 2007. Graduating two of the top rushers in the Presidents' Athletic Conference and having to rebuild on the fly may have been too tall of an order for some coaching staffs. However, that was not the case for the Yellow Jackets.
During the recruiting process last season, Waynesburg coach Rick Shepas found a running back from Monongahela, Pa., to replace Ryan Abels, the school's most prolific rusher.
What Shepas and his staff discovered was a high school senior who could be an immediate impact player for Waynesburg. Three characteristics of Heller's running style stood out to those recruiting him.
"Toughness, number one and you could see it on the field," Shepas said. "He prepares off the field and then you've got breakaway speed.
"We graduated two good tailbacks," added Shepas. "The door was wide open for him to come in and be the guy. He took it from there. He took the responsibility on himself to get ready. He was definitely worth the price of admission with the pads on, that's for sure."
Replacing Abels did not seem like an easy task for a freshman. During his senior season, Abels ran for 852 yards and 11 touchdowns on 183 carries. For his career, he rushed for a school-record 3,985 yards and 45 touchdowns.
To say that Robert Heller served notice of his talent would be an understatement. In his first game, Heller earned D3football.com Team of the Week honors for his efforts against Muskingum. Heller tore up the turf for 230 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries. Two of his scores were from 39 yards or better.
It took one game for the rest of the nation to figure out what Shepas already knew. While the coaching staff began to develop quarterback Andy Lauterbach, Heller proved he could carry the load.
In eight games this season, Heller has run for 1,594 yards on 268 carries. With two regular season contests still left on the schedule, it is possible that Heller could reach the 2,000-yard mark. If he does reach the 2,000-yard plateau, he would be halfway to the Waynesburg career record and still have three full seasons left to eclipse Abel's total.
Out of his 268 attempts, Heller has taken 20 for scores, including an 89-yard scamper against Washington and Jefferson last Saturday.
While Waynesburg (7-1 overall, 4-1 PAC) fell to Washington and Jefferson (8-0, 4-0 PAC) 22-21 at home, it was not because of a lack of effort. Heller continued to assault the record books while keeping his team in the game. Heller's 289 yards was the most in a single game by a Yellow Jacket. In addition to his 20 rushing touchdowns, Heller has also caught one score. The 21 total touchdowns is also a school single-season best.
"He's a pretty motivated player," said Shepas. "He does all those things away from the field that he should do to be successful and to create the success on the field. What he's done is our players realize when he touches the ball, he could score from anywhere on the field."
One of the keys to success for any running back is the play of the offensive line. Shepas has seen Heller's performance as rallying point for the rest of the team, especially the men in the trenches clearing the path to the end zone.
"Our offensive line actually techniquewise did a great job," Shepas said. "They know that he can go the distance. I think it's motivated our guys to get down the field and do a better job blocking down the field.
"It's kind of gotten contagious," he added. "It's almost like, 'Hey, we know he's going to get his yards, but lets see how many more yards he can get if we can block and sustain blocks.'"
The next two weeks will be challenges for Heller and Waynesburg. They travel to Geneva to play the PAC's top-rated scoring and second-best rushing defense. Geneva (6-2) surrenders 15.1 points and 70.9 rushing yards per game. However, the one team giving up fewer yards on the ground than Geneva is Waynesburg.
The regular season finale for the Yellow Jackets will be at home against the Westminster Titans (4-4 overall, 1-3 PAC). The Titans give up nearly 132 yards a game on the ground.
If Heller can continue on his pace, the Yellow Jackets will not just be playing against their PAC rivals. They could be taking on the best in the country in the NCAA playoffs.
Fighting Scots improving as season winds down
Based on their 2-6 record alone, the 2007 season has not gone well for Wooster. Beyond the surface, the Scots have shown signs of improvement. Looking at the final score from Saturday's 21-10 home loss to the 13th-ranked Wabash Little Giants, Wooster has a foundation to build on.
The Scots out-gained Wabash in total yards 365-348. Wooster rushed for a game-best 236 yards, including an Austin Holter four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against the Little Giants.
Dustin Sheppard gained 111 yards on 19 carries against Wabash, which equaled 5.8 yards per carry. For the season, Sheppard has averaged less than four yards a rush. While Sheppard continues to emerge as an offensive threat, the defense has tightened its grip on the opposition.
Linebacker Greg Schermbeck has registered 78 tackles in eight games, 3.5 for loss. Matt DeGrand has been a mainstay in the linebacking corps for the Scots. DeGrand has 73 tackles, 10.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He also has two fumble recoveries, two quarterback hurries and a pair of sacks.
News and Notes
Case Western Reserve wide receiver Tim Cowdrick hauled in two touchdown passes and gained 132 yards in a 35-3 win over Chicago on the road last Saturday. Cowdrick has averaged 103.9 yards a game, but has four touchdowns. In the red zone, the trio of Ryan Kolesar, Shaun Nicely and Brian Webster have accounted for 12 of the 13 touchdown passes not thrown to Cowdrick.
Mount Union junior running back Nate Kmic is a man on a mission. Last Saturday, the 5-9 Delta, Ohio, native tied the Purple Raider record for most career rushing touchdowns (62). He also moved into third place on the Ohio Athletic Conference's All-Time Rushing Leaders List. He could be the OAC's most prolific runner by the end of the regular season.
The Carnegie Mellon Tartans are still in the hunt for the University Athletic Association Championship after defeating Washington University at home 18-13. Despite trailing 7-2 at halftime, the Tartans put together a 13-point third quarter which turned out to be the difference in the contest. Travis Sivek led the way in the victory with 122 yards and one touchdown. Defensively, Jonathan Bodnar had a 31-yard interception return, setting up a field goal in the game's final quarter.
Doug VanEerden shared the honor of Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Week with a seven-catch, 168-yard performance in a 45-35 victory over the Tri-State Thunder. VanEerden corralled four touchdown passes from Jake Manning. VanEerden's first score went for 49 yards, while the final touchdown was a 54-yard strike from Manning.
Great Lakes Teams in D3football.com's Top 25
No. 1-Mount Union (OAC)-No change following 37-0 victory at Capital
No. 9-Washington and Jefferson (PAC)-Down one spot after 22-21 win at Waynesburg
No. 10-Wabash (NCAC)-Up three spots following 21-10 victory at Wooster
No. 17-Capital (OAC)-Down five spots after 37-0 loss vs. Mount Union
Others Receiving Votes- Ohio Northern (OAC)-Out of Top 25 with 21-18 loss to Baldwin-Wallace
Case Western Reserve (UAA)-Receiving first votes following 35-3 victory at Chicago
Waynesburg (PAC)-Receiving votes following 22-21 loss to Washington and Jefferson
Baldwin-Wallace (OAC)-Receiving votes following 21-18 victory at Ohio Northern
Great Lakes teams in the regional rankings
1. Mount Union
4. Case Western Reserve
9. Ohio Northern
2. Washington and Jefferson
Games of the Week
Washington University (6-2, 1-1 UAA) at Case Western Reserve (8-0, 2-0 UAA), Nov. 3, 12 p.m.:The Spartans have a chance to clinch an outright UAA championship with a victory against the Bears. Case carries the UAA's best scoring offense and defense into the contest. Washington must find a way to neutralize the quarterback-receiver tandem of Dan Whalen and Tim Cowdrick in order to have a chance at the upset. For Case, protecting the football will be the biggest key. Washington is the UAA's best team at forcing turnovers.
Olivet (4-4, 4-1 MIAA) at Hope (5-3, 5-0 MIAA), Nov. 3, 1 p.m.: Olivet upset Adrian on the road early in October and have an opportunity to remain in line for an MIAA championship if they can knock off Hope. It will be strength against strength in the contest. Hope comes in to the game as the league's leading offense, while Olivet gives up 19 points per game, the second-best in the conference.