Tony Ierulli had never awarded a game ball during his coaching tenure. The fifth-year Maryville College coach doesn’t believe in them.
This, though, was different.
Former Scot Josh Massengale raced onto the Honaker Field turf in his U.S. Army fatigues Saturday, a giant Maryville flag held high as he went. Back from a tour of duty in Iraq, with deployment to Afghanistan a couple of months off, Massengale was on hand to watch Maryville conclude one of its best seasons ever with a 43-6 trouncing of Averett University.
With the win, the 2007 Scots (7-3) became only the 16th team in school history to win at least seven games. Only three teams have won eight, with the 1946 Tangerine Bowl squad the lone Maryville team to ever win nine.
Massengale’s dramatic entrance ahead of the team had a telling effect.
“I had tears in my eyes seeing that,” Ierulli said.
Prior to the game, Massengale had been award a medal for courage earned during a fire fight in Iraq. Afterward, he gave the medal to Maryville senior fullback John MacKersie, whom Massengale said best displayed “a fighting spirit” among this year’s Scots.
With that, “I picked up the game ball and tossed it over to him,” Ierulli said. “There were a lot of tears. Two months from now, he’s going to be in Afghanistan.”
Following the Scots by mail, by internet and press clippings sent by Ierulli is how he kept it together, Massengale would say.
“He said sometimes the only thing that kept him going was Maryville College football games,” Ierulli said. “He even flew the Maryville College flag outside his tent.”
Massengale played only one season with the Scots, in 2004. He’d joined the Army out of high school, joining the Maryville football team after completing boot camp. When his unit was activated at season’s end, Massengale hurried to have wrist surgery so as not to delay or postpone his deployment.
That commitment to task, albeit on a far less dire scale, was the story of Maryville’s 2007 season, Ierulli said.
Football is not war, he said.
“We talk about it as a battle, as war,” Ierulli said, “but it’s a game.”
One the Scots played this fall like few teams Maryville has ever fielded.
Sophomore Rommel Hightower became only the fourth player in Maryville history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, running for 150 yards with two scores to bring his season yardage total to 1,016.
Only former Scots Kevin Skipper, Thomas Stephens and Armand Akiboh, school record holder with 1,069 yards, have ever eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier at Maryville. Rommel’s 2007 finish ranks only behind Akiboh and, with two seasons yet to play, his career total is within 1,000 yards of former Scot Alvin Nance’s all-time mark.
The seven wins and 1,000-yard season were equal parts of a good year, Hightower said.
“I think it showed how hard we strive to run the ball,” he said, “and not just me.”
Sophomore Nick Moore ran for 559 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, with quarterback Lucas Wall 512 yards.
There was only one thing missing, Hightower said.
“That ring,” he said. “Seven and three is a pretty good year. We could be one of the best Maryville teams of all time, but we don’t have a (conference championship) ring to show for it.”
Sophomore linebacker Kyle Chewning is of the same mind.
Only once this season did Maryville fall decisively, a 51-20 loss at USA South Conference foe North Carolina Wesleyan. Conference heavyweight Christopher Newport would escape Maryville’s grasp, 27-13, with Methodist all but ending any title hopes, 27-23, two weeks ago.
Led by Chewning’s team-best 113 tackles — 48 better than his closest pursuer, senior Scott Stevens — Maryville was a tough, hard-nosed team defensively with much to look back on. As Hightower eluded to, though, it’s what’s not there, a conference title, that will fuel this winter’s workouts, Chewning said.
“It’s something we’re striving for,” he said. “We’re definitely a step in the right direction. We’re all looking for that conference championship. That’s what’s going to define this program.”
It’s a point driven home by Maryville’s eyes-on-the-prize head coach.
“We finished 7-3 and we’re third in the conference,” Ierulli said. “If it’s 7-3 and we’re in first place, all right. Seven and three and it’s not first place, it’s just not all right.
“This program, and me, should be judged by championships. If I’m here 15 years, and I don’t win a championship, I’ll consider myself a failure.”
Hard words, but they pale when compared to what Massengale now faces on a day to day basis, Ierulli said. Politics aside, it’s both admirable and, at the same time, humbling.
“To me, it goes beyond being a republican or a democrat,” Ierulli said. “You can disagree about why or where, but, if we’ve got American boys and girls over there so we can have a better situation, you should respect them.
“Regardless of how you feel about the war, we’re about the soldiers.”
Saturday, it was about a game ball, well and richly deserved.