By Michael Otero
Coming off its thrilling 48-41 victory against Winston-Salem State University in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament, football faced its toughest test to date and suffered a 40-21 loss at the hands of Shepherd University on Saturday, Nov. 26, at Bethpage Federal Credit Union Stadium in Brookville, N.Y.
The loss is the first of the season for the Pioneers who rounded out a historic campaign with a 12-1 record. The 12 wins mark a program record, as do the two play-off games. With the win, the Rams from Shepherd University move on to face California University of Pennsylvania in the quarterfinals.
For the game itself, the Pioneers were dealt a blow early when the opponent marched down the field on its opening possession and scored a touchdown. The Rams’ drive went for six plays and 63 yards and finished with a 31-yard scamper by freshman halfback, Brandon Hlavach.
On its ensuing drive, LIU attempted to answer that score with one of its own, but a costly turnover in the red-zone kept the Pioneers off the scoreboard for the time being. After the defense forced a punt, the Pioneer offense made sure to get in the end zone on a one-yard run by red-shirt sophomore running back, Malik Pierre, to even the score at seven apiece.
The score stood at 7-7 until the end of the first quarter, but the Rams unleashed a 19-point unanswered outburst to take a commanding 26-7 lead into halftime. Senior quarterback, Jeff Ziemba, tossed all three touchdowns, two to senior 6”4’ pass catcher, Billy Brown, and one to senior receiver, CJ Davis; the last score came just 23 seconds before halftime.
The Pioneers fought valiantly until the end, cutting the deficit to 12 twice during the second half, but the Rams’ offense was in rhythm and could not be stopped. The guests scored in response to Pioneer touchdowns twice and capped off the win with Brown’s third receiving touchdown of the day with 4:27 left in the game.
In the loss, senior quarterback, Jeff Kidd, went 25-for-43 through the air for 288 yards and a touchdown and was also sacked four times. His counterpart, Ziemba, threw for 375 yards and four scores. The Pioneer running game, which played a huge part in its win against Winston-Salem, was held to under 100 yards, but did score two touchdowns.
In the receiving department, Brown stole the show for the Rams, totaling 11 catches for 189 yards and three touchdowns. Kidd’s favorite target, red-shirt senior wide out, Shane Hubbard, finished with 10 catches and 155 yards.
Defensively, senior linebacker, Nate Feliz, had a game-high 10 tackles and a sack. Red-shirt junior defensive lineman, Anthony DeNunzio, had nine tackles to go along with a sack and pass break-up. Freshman defensive back, Joshua Flowers, made nine tackles and two pass break-ups to his credit.
As a team, the Rams totaled more first downs (30-23), total of- fense (591-379), and forced more turnovers.
Football’s most successful season has come to an end. “When you talk about leaving a legacy or building for the future, various programs talk about one specific year,” said Head Coach Bryan Collins. “And I think what this group accomplished – the first to win 12 games; the first to host two playoff games… I think they’ve accomplished a lot. They set the bar very high and established a legacy for themselves.”