|Matt Pawlowski and his classmates left an indelible legacy at Guilford.
Photo courtesy Guilford Athletics
By Adam Turer
Guilford football now believes that it is a perennial contender.
Five years ago, the Quakers were winless. The following year, they went 2-8 in Chris Rusiewicz's first season. Then, the class of Matt Pawlowski and Adam Smith arrived on campus.
The freshmen contributed immediately, leading the Quakers to a 5-5 season. That was followed by 6-4 and 8-2 seasons and capped by this year's 9-1 finish, the best in program history.
The Quakers are still seeking the program's first playoff berth, but there is no question that the culture change is complete.
"All of us seniors felt like we were the turning point in this program," said senior receiver Adam Smith.
This year's nine wins are a record. The Quakers narrowly missed earning the first playoff berth in program history. As much as it hurts now, this year's senior class altered the course of this program.
"We knew our senior class was special when we brought them in," said Rusiewicz. "They really came together as one group and bonded together. They took care of the classes that came after them."
Smith set a program record with 3,988 career receiving yards. His 46 receiving touchdowns are also a record. Pawlowski finishes second behind Josh Vogelbach in nearly all of the Quakers career passing categories. He is the all-time leader in completion percentage at 63.7 percent.
"He's very accurate and very smart," said quarterbacks coach Steve McNeely of Pawlowski. "He will take what the defense gives him and will not be greedy. He uses his brain to his advantage."
McNeely knows what it takes to build a championship program. He arrived at Guilford earlier this year after coaching at Mount Union. He coached Kevin Burke, a two-time Gagliardi Trophy winner. He noticed right away that the coaching staff had prepared the Quakers to approach each week at a championship level. He also recognized that his new quarterback shared many attributes with his previous All-American.
"They are both tremendous kids on and off the field. They are hard workers who do whatever it takes for their team to win," said McNeely, comparing Pawlowski and Burke. "Either of them would trade all of his accolades for team success."
Smith and Pawlowski began their relationship as competitors. Both were high school quarterbacks, and Rusiewicz would have been comfortable with either starting as a freshman. Pawlowski won out and in Week 2 of that season Smith moved to wide receiver. The pair connected for over 3,000 yards and over 40 touchdowns over the next four years.
"Adam and Matt just clicked. They're just such great kids," said Rusiewicz. "When Matt needs to make a play, he knows where he wants to go. They're amazing people."
Having a similar background and perspective helped the two see eye-to-eye. It also helps that they share a major and minor and can spend time talking shop during breaks in class. They watched film together and did everything they could to continue improving each week.
"Adam had that knowledge of the offense just like I did," said Pawlowski. "He understands the defenses so well."
"He trusts me and I trust him," said Smith. "We just love the game. We feel like we're on the same wavelength all the time."
The seniors realize that they were the turning point of the program. They have set the Quakers up for an unprecedented level of success and expectations. Each season, the Quakers can realistically expect to go 10-0. This year, that goal was only derailed by a road loss at Washington and Lee on a windy, rainy day when Pawlowski was knocked out with an injury in the second quarter. Guilford lost that game 20-17. Nearly every loss is an upset, a complete reversal from the season before these seniors arrived.
"That freshman year, there wasn't a lot of expectations. We had to work so hard to win games," said Pawlowski. "We got better through some of our failures that first year. The mindset has changed. Now, we're going into each week expecting to win."
There will not be many four-year starters like Smith and Pawlowski in the coming years. That's good news for the program. The future remains promising. Sophomore De'Eric Bell stepped up after starting running back Josh Schow was injured. Sophomore Rontavious Miller caught seven touchdown passes. Three starters on the offensive line will return.
The seniors leave on a sour note, feeling like they deserved an at-large playoff berth. But, they take comfort in knowing that they left a legacy that will be carried on by future Guilford classes.
"Hearing what the young guys have to say about what they've learned from us," said Smith. "Our work ethic, our attitude, and our hunger to win. We take satisfaction in knowing that we've changed the program."
Finishing on a high note
Do not underestimate the importance of winning in Week 11, even if it was the end of a disappointing season. Washington and Lee coaches and players point to last season's victory over Shenandoah in the finale as a turning point which propelled the Generals to this year's perfect season. It was just W&L's second win in a frustrating 2014 season, but gave the team confidence going into the offseason. So, for teams like Bridgewater, Ursinus, and Methodist, there is hope heading into 2016.
The Eagles defeated Catholic emphatically, winning 45-13 behind Matthew Pisarcik's 319 passing yards and three touchdowns. The defense held T.J. Tutone to just five yards per pass attempt and forced four turnovers. Bridgewater finished the season 4-6.
Ursinus jumped out to an early lead and held off Dickinson's second half surge to win 28-20. Asa Manley put up 172 yards of offense (103 rushing, 69 receiving) and two scores. The Bears finished the season 3-7.
Anthony Radke did what every senior playing his final game on Saturday aspired to do: go out with a memorable performance in a big win. The Methodist wide receiver hauled in eight receptions for 178 yards and three touchdowns in the Monarchs' 47-12 win over LaGrange. Methodist finished the year 4-6.
The Game that always matters
There are other games that have significance no matter what transpired for either team during the first ten weeks of the season. The Game will always impact the offseasons of both Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney.
It was a good old fashioned slugfest in Ashland as the Yellow Jackets won their second straight rivalry game. Randolph-Macon has won four of the last five editions of The Game. An early pick six and a goal line stand early in the fourth quarter set the tone for the Yellow Jackets. The defense forced four turnovers to help the offense overcome just a 209-yard day. J.J. Hill had the pick six and intercepted another pass in the end zone. The Tigers finish the year 6-4 while the Yellow Jackets finish 4-6, but on a three-game winning streak. Which team's offseason would you rather have?
In addition to the conference champion Hawks, Blue Jays, and Generals, there are still two other teams with one week of practice left.
Muhlenberg will host Stevenson and Moravian will play at Delaware Valley in the inaugural Centennial-MAC Bowl Series. All four teams finished the regular season with 8-2 records.
Muhlenberg kept Moravian out of the playoffs and earned the home bowl game behind Nick Palladino's four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in a 28-14 win over the Greyhounds. The Mules sacked Mike Hayes seven times, led by Mike Luby and Mike Musilli.
The Mules and Greyhounds will go for nine-win seasons and play for Centennial Conference pride and bragging rights.
The road to Salem
Johns Hopkins hosts Western New England in the opening round. Both teams enter the game 10-0. Washington and Lee, despite posting the first 10-0 season in program history, will hit the road for an opening round game at Thomas More. The Saints, also 10-0, defeated the Generals 42-14 in the opening round of the 2010 playoffs. Huntingdon makes its second playoff appearance after winning its first USA South title. The Hawks will host Hendrix, a program making its first appearance in just its third year of existence.
Thank you for reading all season. I really enjoyed the feedback all year. Stay tuned to the site and follow me at @adamturer for postseason coverage. I highly recommend making the trip to Salem for the Stagg Bowl. The city of Salem puts on a great event and we are guaranteed to see a different matchup this year, with Mount Union and UW-Whitewater on opposite sides of the bracket. If you're going to be there, please reach out and let me know. Thanks for reading and for following D-III football this season. Enjoy the playoffs!