|Jamaal Morant and the Bobcats seized their moment, rushing all over Wittenberg in a dominant first round victory.
Frostburg State athletics photo
By Adam Turer
You don’t need Google or even a Frostburg State media guide. Fourth-year head coach DeLane Fitzgerald will gladly tell you anything and everything you need to know about the Bobcats program.
Fitzgerald is well aware that this year marks just the second playoff appearance in program history. He knows that through 57 years of football, the Bobcats still have an overall losing record (265-280-8). He didn’t come to Frostburg to rewrite history; he arrived intent on changing the trajectory of the program.
With a second-straight 10-win season, he has done just that. The next step is for the program to be recognized as one of the best programs in the East and, eventually, the nation.
“We are cognizant of the fact that we don’t get a lot of respect week in and week out,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re also cognizant of the fact that we’ve had a football team for almost 60 years and we have a losing record. Now, it won’t be much longer. But our record since 1961, we’re in the negative column.”
The Bobcats hit rock bottom with a 1-9 season in 2013. Fitzgerald was hired in February 2014. Three years later, Frostburg State finished the regular season 9-1 and felt deserving of a Pool C playoff bid that never came. The 2016 snub was not taken lightly.
“I don’t think anybody in our football program let that slip their mind,” said Fitzgerald. “We had inspired workouts in the offseason and I would accredit those to us getting snubbed last year. The offseason workouts were particularly spirited.”
|Dante Chinnery's 93-yard fake punt touchdown helped deliver the Bobcats' first playoff win in 24 years.
Frostburg State athletics photo
This season, Frostburg State again finished 9-1, again deserving of a playoff berth. This time, they were given the opportunity. They seized it in a big way, going on the road and shocking Wittenberg with a thorough 35-7 victory.
“We took a little chip because last year we felt like we had a great team,” said Jamaal Morant, who rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the win. “Going into this offseason, we hung our hat on our defense, but offensively we took it on our shoulders to give the defense a break this year.”
The Bobcats dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. A team built for playing close games routed a team that rarely loses, especially at home. After being granted a long overdue opportunity to compete in the playoffs, the Bobcats took full advantage.
“We thought we had the best defense in the eastern United States and still, a year later, we’re good on defense now. We thought we had the best defense in the country last year so we felt like we should have been in the playoffs,” said Fitzgerald. “[This year,] we didn’t talk about the playoffs until D3football.com put out its predictions on Thursday before the final [regular season] game and had us left out. I could see that some of our guys’ shoulders had slumped so we had a quick team meeting to make sure they knew the point of the week and the point for the rest of their lives: let’s go beat Salisbury this week and take care of only the things we can take care of and let everybody else do their job.”
The Bobcats took care of business against Salisbury, winning the Regents Cup in a double-overtime thriller. It was the team’s second overtime game of the season; the first was a loss to Wesley on October 7. Even though that loss put the Bobcats back on the playoff bubble, it served them well in the long run.
“The style of football we play lends us to play close football games, a little more than other people would like us to,” said Fitzgerald. “Our coaching staff has been in a bunch of overtime games and believe it or not, the Wesley game was the first overtime game we’ve lost. That loss ended up benefitting us when we went to double overtime against Salisbury.”
Although he is not an alum of the program, Fitzgerald has a close kinship with former players. As an assistant coach at James Madison, he struck up a friendship with Darrius Smith, a captain on that 1993 Frostburg State team. His first week on the job as a young coach new to the area, Smith was living out of his car. Fitzgerald immediately invited Smith to live with him. They went their separate coaching ways, but always kept in touch. When Fitzgerald told Smith that he was applying for the Frostburg State job, Smith returned the decade-old favor and picked up the phone to make some important calls.
“He is a very good friend of mine. I knew he always wanted to be a D-III head coach,” said Smith, now the running backs coach at UMass. “When DeLane told me he was applying for the job at my alma mater, I told him not to do anything until I made a couple of phone calls. In my humble opinion, he was the perfect candidate for Frostburg State.”
The 2017 Bobcats have much in common with the 1993 team. They are the only two Frostburg State teams to earn a playoff berth. They both won their first round game in surprising fashion. They both advanced to face Washington and Jefferson in the second round.
Smith and his teammates have always enjoyed alumni functions more than any other group, in large part to their previously unprecedented success.
“These kids are going to get to experience that five, 10, 15, 20 years from now. This run is going to be so special to them,” said Smith. “For them to be going to quarterfinals and playing W&J, it’s a nice full circle moment.”
Fitzgerald has made sure to reach out to those alumni and make sure they know that they’re a vital part of the program. The Bobcats are one of the only D-III teams sporting chrome helmets. The generosity of the football alumni goes a long way to supporting the current Bobcats.
“We’re not in competition with that ‘93 playoff team. Let it be known, we’re not here without them,” said Fitzgerald. “We wouldn’t have money for our helmets, to feed and travel our guys like we should. All of our alumni, but especially that ‘93 team, those guys are our biggest fans.”
That was evident on Saturday in Ohio, where several former Bobcats were in attendance. Among them was Frostburg State Hall of Famer Tim Feldman, another member of that 1993 squad.
“From day one, Coach Fitzgerald was welcoming to former players of any team who wanted to come back. It’s a very proud time to be a former Bobcat and a fan. It’s amazing what coach and his staff have been able to do in his four years,” said Feldman. “It’s crazy that this coaching staff has been able to make such a transformation. Frostburg’s always been a very special place for us. To see them back in the national picture is awesome.”
Dwight Sims has been invited to campus each preseason to share the story behind the tradition of the memorial rock outside of Bobcat Stadium. Sims, at the request of Fitzgerald, explains the meaning behind the rock that was originally dedicated in honor of defensive line coach Lawren Williams, who passed away prior to the 1993 season.
“The coaching staff and players have really restored the pride back in the program. Not just on the field, but also academically and socially in the community. It’s not just football, it’s Frostburg. That’s the way we felt about it, that we were representing the whole school,” said Sims. “It’s really kind of freaky how this is mirroring the ‘93 season. It’s that bond that will always be there.”
Smith was watching the first round game on his phone while he dressed for his team’s game that afternoon against BYU. He sent Fitzgerald a text message as soon as he saw the gutsy 93-yard fake punt touchdown run by Dante Chinnery. Feldman made the trip to watch the Bobcats first round game in person and will be there again this weekend in Pennsylvania. Advancements in technology have allowed these alumni to follow the program as closely as ever. But it’s the attitude that Fitzgerald has instilled in the program that has rejuvenated the Frostburg base. Now that there is a second Bobcats team with playoff experience, they can lean on their predecessors as needed.
“We didn’t have those alumni to reach out to to let the kids know that these things are possible,” said Smith of his team’s playoff experience. “DeLane knows that the ‘93 squad is there. He’s a historian of whatever he does. He understood the similarities.”
This week, the Bobcats past and present hope the similarities end. This could be the first Frostburg State team to win multiple playoff games. The fact that the opportunity comes against the Presidents is not lost on those former players who have been waiting for this moment for 24 years.
“Somebody had to be first, and it was us. It was very surreal to be part of the NCAA playoffs. Some of the teams before us had gone 9-1 and didn’t get the recognition that it took. Frostburg had to build up some respect,” said Feldman. “Being on campus for Thanksgiving was really an honor. I wanted [this W&J matchup] to happen. To get this chance again, I’m hoping we can get a little bit of revenge.”
The Bobcats have a proud history of being underdogs. The 1993 team was comprised mostly of players who fell just below the Division I-AA radar. They were either a half-step too slow, a few pounds too light, or a few points shy academically. They recognize themselves and their teammates in the current Frostburg team, which is again made up of a mixture of talented athletes and hard-nosed players who play with a chip on their shoulders.
The chemistry and bonds, like those shared by the 1993 team, have been revived over the past four seasons. These Bobcats aren’t concerned about national rankings or prestige. They play for one another, and that’s enough.
“Pressure is self-imposed. We like each other and we like playing football. I don’t see a lot of pressure,” said Fitzgerald. “This is a family-type atmosphere. Our accountability to each other is through the roof, day in and day out.”
This season marks the third 10-win season in program history. No Frostburg State team has ever won 11 games. The 2017 Bobcats are one win away from making history, and every Bobcat who played before them would be happy to see a new single-season wins record set on Saturday.
There are now three memorial plaques on “The Rock” outside of Bobcat Stadium. The first contains a favorite saying of the late Lawren Williams: “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
There is no doubt that Fitzgerald’s Bobcats believe.