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Now, experience is a strength for Wittenberg

DeShawn Sarley stiff-arm
Last year Dehawn Sarley and quarterback Joe Kennedy were 1-2 on the Wittenberg team in rushing yards, as sophomores.
Wittenberg athletics photo
 

By Joe Sager
D3sports.com

Last year, the climb to the top of the NCAC mountain was an interesting one.

Each week, it seemed one team was knocking off the leader. Eventually, Wittenberg emerged from a crowded field to take its 14th NCAC crown.

The Tigers were caught up in the weekly merry-go-round with DePauw, Wabash and Denison. All four teams were on top of the standings at various points, but Wittenberg overcame a 24-21 loss to Denison to win the title at 8-1, while those other three squads tied for second at 7-2.

The intense race galvanized the young Tigers as they edged Thomas More, 33-30, in four overtimes to open the postseason. Their run ended with a 37-9 setback to UW-Whitewater.

While the loss was disappointing, Wittenberg hopes the playoff march laid the groundwork for another successful campaign. The experience was huge for junior quarterback Jake Kennedy and junior running back DeShawn Sarley, both first-year starters a year ago.

“It’s always nice to still be playing football during Thanksgiving. Anytime you do that, you know you’re one of 16 teams left, so it’s nice to have that success,” Sarley said. “This year, we’re worried about taking one game at a time, building off the success of last year and hopefully going deeper.”

Added Kennedy, “I think it’s a big deal – making playoffs your first year starting and getting that win under our belts, knowing we can do it even if we were young. We’ve moved on, though, and we’re only looking at this year. Being a junior, it’s now more of a matter of just working on timing and things like that and trying to perfect my craft.”

As sophomores, Kennedy and Sarley were asked to shoulder a big part of the offensive load for the Tigers. Kennedy passed for 2,388 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Sarley had a team-best 754 yards rushing. Kennedy added 530 yards on the ground as well.

Both expect to produce even more this year. Why? Because they’re comfortable now.

“Last year, getting thrown into the fire, it’s not always easy. I was one of the younger quarterbacks to start here, but things are definitely starting to slow down,” Kennedy said.
“I can read defenses more fluently and see things in front of me better. It’s a matter of working on the little things now.”

Likewise, Sarley can focus on playing football and not just trying to avoid mistakes.

“I felt like last year with it being my first year starting, I was just worried about knowing my assignment and not messing up,” he said. “I am more familiar with not just what I have to do, but what to do in different situations. It’s nice having that extra year under my belt. It’s nice to go out and play football instead of worrying about my assignments.”

A strong friendship has benefited both players as well.

“It’s definitely a good feeling having Sarley back there. We came in together and played JV together our first year. We have that bond and chemistry in the backfield. If we have a problem with any protections, we can communicate and get the offense where it needs to get going,” Kennedy said. “We’re always together and competing. We come in and we expect the best out of each other. Week to week, we know we have to perform to the best of our ability.”

Added Sarley: “I would consider him one of my best friends. I talk to him every day and we hang out. It’s nice to have that camaraderie and relationship on and off the field. It makes that relationship on the field that much stronger. I think Jake has also benefited from playing last year. I can tell he is a lot more comfortable. He knows his reads and checks a little better. We feed off that. When your quarterback has confidence, the whole offense is confident.”

The squad welcomed another playmaker in junior Thaddeus Snodgrass. The Kentucky transfer had a strong Wittenberg debut when he caught four passes for 117 yards and two scores in a 20-14 win at Westminster to open the season. He added three catches for 58 yards in last week’s 34-0 win over Oberlin to start NCAC play.

“It’s definitely nice having him coming into an already talented receiving corps. He just adds another key part to the passing game. As a unit, I think the receivers are coming along well and getting where they need to be,” Kennedy said. “It’s definitely nice having some speed on the outside with Thaddeus. He has worked hard since he got here. He’s had some injuries, but he is starting to get healthy and we’re starting to get the timing down that we couldn’t work on when he was hurt. I think each week, it’ll keep progressing.”

Sarley is excited to see what the Tigers’ offense can do this season.

“From the offensive line to the skill positions, I feel we have lot of guys who played a lot of snaps. We have that experience and they know the situations and what they have to do,” he said. “Snodgrass is very explosive. He is probably one of the faster kids on the team. It’s always good to have a big-play threat down the field that he and a couple of our other receivers provide. I am confident with all my teammates. I know whoever’s number is called, they will be ready to deliver. We have trust in each other and, hopefully, we continue to get better.”

Racking up the yards

Denison established a program record when it piled up 746 yards of offense in a 62-26 win at Allegheny in NCAC play.

Quarterback Canaan Gebele passed for a career-best 407 yards and three touchdowns. Malik Webster (157 yards), Charlie Mueller (133) and David Weimar (120) eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards.

OAC battle

More proof that Baldwin Wallace is for real under new head coach Jim Hilvert – the Yellow Jackets gave No. 9 John Carroll a test in OAC action.

The Blue Streaks led, 21-6, late in the second quarter, but Baldwin Wallace forged a 21-all tie late in the third. Matt Danko’s field goal early in the fourth was the difference for John Carroll. Mike Connick intercepted a pass with 59 seconds remaining to secure the Cuyahoga Gold Bowl Trophy.

PAC showdown

Washington & Jefferson opened the second half against Thomas More with a 19-0 outburst and held on for a 37-29 triumph in a PAC showdown.

The No. 17 Presidents got a career day from all-universe senior receiver Jesse Zubik. He hauled in 11 passes for 322 yards and six touchdowns. He established program and conference single-game marks for receiving yards and touchdowns. Senior quarterback Alex Rowse passed for a program-best 482 yards in the win.

Due to the PAC’s unbalanced schedule, Case Western Reserve does not play Washington & Jefferson (or Thomas More) this year. Keep an eye on that situation as the Spartans and Presidents could both finish unbeaten in conference play.

In the polls

No. 2 Mount Union (2-0) rolled past Marietta, 69-3, in OAC play. The Purple Raiders host Baldwin Wallace on Saturday.

No. 9 John Carroll (1-1) edged Baldwin Wallace, 24-21, in OAC action. The Blue Streaks trek to Heidelberg on Saturday.

No. 16 Wittenberg (2-0) slipped a spot after a 34-0 win over Oberlin in NCAC competition. The Tigers are at Kenyon on Saturday.

No. 17 Washington & Jefferson (3-0) moved up a notch after its 37-29 win over Thomas More in PAC clash. The Presidents welcome Thiel on Saturday.

No. 18 Case Western Reserve (2-0) topped Grove City, 42-10, in PAC play. The Spartans welcome Waynesburg on Saturday.

No. 25 Wabash (2-0) jumped into the rankings after its 62-7 win over Keyon in NCAC action. The Little Giants welcome Hiram on Saturday.

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Columnist

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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