|Wesley seniors E.J. Lee, Vincent Ebron, Devin Miller and Andrew Eagle walk out for the coin toss.
Wesley athletics photo
By Brian Lester
Wesley and Frostburg State will play a football game Saturday that could very well decide the champion of the New Jersey Athletic Conference.
Sixth-ranked Wesley is the winner of the last three championships, while Frostburg State, ranked fifth in the country, is hopeful it can steal the throne from the Wolverines before making an exit for NCAA Division II.
|DeLane Fitzgerald came to a program that had gone 1-9 the previous season and his Bobcats have gone 34-13 in four-plus seasons.
Frostburg State athletics photo
The way Bobcats head coach DeLane Fitzgerald sees it, he won’t have to say much to his team ahead of this crucial conference showdown on the road.
“My thought as the head coach is if I have to motivate them this week, I’ve recruited the wrong young men,” Fitzgerald said. “A big game like this, they should be motivated on their own. I don’t change anything that I do during a normal week.”
Wesley head coach Chip Knapp has a similar feeling. His Wolverines have played in countless big games, especially with being a regular in the postseason.
He will be the first to tell you, though, that the feeling on campus is slightly different, and isn’t just the hint of fall in the air.
“There is definitely more energy this week,” Knapp said. “We’ve been in a lot of big games and our kids are excited about this one. But we’re just trying to focus on what needs to be done on the field Saturday. We want to stay focused and do what we know.”
What Wesley knows how to do well is win. The Wolverines are off to a 4-0 start, outscoring the opposition 167-24, and they have had just two seasons since 2005 where they haven’t won at least 10 games. A year ago against the Bobcats, the Wolverines survived an overtime battle with a 27-24 win.
Knapp is expecting a tightly contested game this time around as well.
“In these high-stakes games, we know nothing is easy,” Knapp said. “You just have to stay the course. And we’ve found that’s been successful for us. Even when you are down, you don’t press the panic button. You keep playing. We’ve won some games that have been easy this year, but we know this one is going to go into the fourth quarter. It comes down to how you play late in the game.”
|Connor Cox has thrown one interception in 56 passing attempts so far this season.
Frostburg State athletics photo
Both teams went to the playoffs in 2017, with Frostburg State reaching the national quarterfinal round, and these two teams are rivals, having played almost every year for the past two decades.
Once a rivalry that was intense in the 1990s, it has been revived after the way last season’s game played out.
“Last year we felt like we were in a good position to win it, and we feel we have an even better chance this year,” Bobcats quarterback Connor Cox said. “This is our last chance to beat them, and with the rivalry coming to an end, it would be nice to end it on a high note.”
The rivalry is indeed ending because of Frostburg State’s looming move to D-II, at least for the near future. But this rivalry goes beyond the field.
“I’d say the rivalry has been renewed, but as a staff, we’ve been here for five seasons, and we spend each year competing with them because we are recruiting the same exact players,” Fitzgerald said.
The Bobcats are unbeaten through three games and have had an interesting start. It opened the season on a Thursday night with a 34-7 win over Stevenson and didn’t play again for nine days. Their game against Christopher Newport was washed out by Hurricane Florence. They then defeated Rowan 34-7 Sept. 22 before a bye last weekend.
“The schedule has been a bit of a distraction. You like to be in a rhythm and do the same thing on the same day every week, but that hasn’t happened for us,” Fitzgerald said. “The old cliché is every season is different, and this season has definitely been different.”
Still, the Bobcats, who have yet to play up to their full potential, according to Fitzgerald, expect to be ready.
Wesley will be as well.
“We know it’s a big challenge ahead, and even though it’s a conference game between two of the best teams in the country, we’re trying to take it as any other week,” Wolverines quarterback Khaaliq Burroughs said. “We’re working to get better every day in practice. Our coaches have a great game plan for us. We just have to stick to it.”
Just as Frostburg has battled through adversity, it’s been an even tougher year for Wesley.
The Wolverines are still dealing with the loss of their former head coach, Mike Drass, who passed away from a heart attack in May. He was only 57.
Knapp took over the job and said his team is dedicating this year to Drass, sticking with the lessons that have been learned from him over the years.
“We’re still processing the whole thing and we’re still not used to it. We expect him to walk through the door any minute,” Knapp said. “Our focus is on football right now, and that’s all we can do. We continue to do what he has taught us and so far the recipe has been successful. We want to continue to make him proud. That’s part of our team’s philosophy.”
As for this game, one that will have a lot riding on it, both teams can’t wait to kick it off.
Fitzgerald said these are the kind of games he loves coaching in.
“I don’t coach football to play bad teams every week. I took this job to play games like this,” Fitzgerald said. “This game means a lot. It’s a lot of fun. A special game.”
“We don't want to look past anyone, but we are looking at this like it’s our conference title game, and it’s exciting to be a part of it,” Cox said. “It would be a good feeling to end the rivalry with a win, and to do it at their place would put a little extra cherry on top of it.”
Burroughs has never lost to Frostburg State. He wants to keep it that way.
“People come to Wesley to play games like this. This is what you live for as a player,” Burroughs said. “We want to stay victorious in the rivalry. We feel like if we execute our game plan, we’ll come out on on top.”