Five years ago, homecoming was anything but festive.
The Maryville College football team, coming off a winless 0-10 season the year before, was well on the way to a 2-10 finish in Tony Ierulli’s first year as coach. Those were tough times. The harder the Scots tried, the harder the hard-luck losses came.
It’s what makes this weekend’s visit from Methodist University for Homecoming 2007 all the sweeter.
“We’ve got a chance to do something special,” Ierulli said. “We can’t achieve that if we don’t play well and beat Methodist.”
Kickoff Saturday at Honaker Field is 2 p.m.
WBCR radio, AM 1470, will have the broadcast.
The Scots (5-2, 2-2 USA South Athletic Conference) welcome the Monarchs (1-6, 1-3) to town with the chance to become only the fifth team in school history to post at least an eight-win season looming on the horizon. Games at Shenandoah University, Nov. 3, and the home finale against Averett University, Nov. 10, remain, neither of which will be easy.
It’s a position the Scots could only imagine when Ierulli opened his first fall camp five years ago.
“Our expectations back in 2003 were just staying close to teams by halftime,” he said. “We had to learn how to compete.”
Ierulli entered with little to work with. Maryville simply did not have the manpower. Recruiting, understandably, was top priority.
“Someone once told me, ‘If you want to be the best coach, you better get the best players,’” Ierulli, a former Scot, said. “We can be good coaches, but we’d better be great recruiters to be successful at Maryville.”
Only, when Ierulli arrived, there was a catch.
The 0-10 slide in 2002, the first time a Maryville team had played 10 games and lost them all, preceded equally down years in 2001, where the Scots finished 2-8, and 2000, when the tally was 3-7.
Ierulli couldn’t sell recruits on what Maryville was doing.
“My first two years, I had to sell them on a vision,” he said.
Ierulli’s dream was for Maryville to one day compete for a conference championship — and soon. If recruits would throw in with him, that day would arrive by his fourth season, he promised. While the Scots are going to need some help to claim the USA South crown in 2007, they’re close. If it happens, this year or next, three players — former Scots Derek Rang, Chris Howerton and Colby Townsend — will be a big reason why.
Rang, a quick, athletic linebacker, joined the Scots in 2003 after winning three consecutive state championships at nearby Maryville High. Howerton, a big hitter with a nose for the ball, arrived the same year from Knoxville Central.
Completing Maryville’s start-up triumvirate was Townsend, an unheralded defensive end out of Florida in whom Ierulli saw great potential.
“Year by year, we started getting better and better players at Maryville College,” Ierulli said. “Those three guys were landmark players for our program.”
Townsend would blossom into a Division III All-American by his second season at Maryville. Rang and Howerton, the team’s top tackler his four seasons, would leave as captains.
Maryville didn’t take the world by storm right way behind the big three. The Scots went 5-4 Ierulli’s second season, slipping to 3-7 a year later. The margins by which Maryville was losing those games, though, was beginning fall precipitously. The 2005 season included three losses by less than a touchdown.
“We made progress, not by giant steps or leaps and bounds,” Ierulli said, “but with baby steps. We had to learn to be competitive. Then we started to win those close games. We started to win those games in the fourth quarter.”
The groundwork laid by Townsend, Howerton and Rang soon began attracting players Ierulli, at least initially, never dreamed would want to wear the orange and garnet. Twins Justin and Matt Price arrived Ierulli’s third season to begin the resurgence in earnest. Justin would leave last season as one of the school’s most prolific quarterbacks, helping Maryville to a 5-5 finish.
Again, four of the losses were by a touchdown or less, including a heartbreaking, 39-36 overtime loss at Greensboro. This season, continued success at recruiting helped Maryville avenge that loss to the Monarchs with a 24-7 decision over Methodist earlier this season.
The players now filling the Maryville ranks are now some of area’s best. Former Lenoir City star Rommel Hightower was a steal at running back two years ago. The thickly-muscled sophomore champions a punishing Scots ground game with 654 yards and five touchdowns this season.
From nearby William Blount, Maryville found Price’s successor at quarterback in sophomore Lucas Wall. The former Governor is closing on 1,000 yards passing in his first season as the starter. Four Maryville receivers — Ryan Gains, Hightower, Tyler Sauceman and Joseph Bryant — have at least 10 catches.
Perhaps the most telling statistic about these Scots is their ability to finish. In two overtime games this season — Huntingdon, 27-24, and Ferrum, 26-23 — Maryville emerged victorious.
Players like All-American kick returner Dustin Locke and linebacker Kyle Chewning lead a defense that’s kept Maryville close in every game but one. Perhaps the Scots biggest result this season was a 27-13 loss at USA South power Christopher Newport, a team that stormed Maryville, 53-2, only two years ago.
“I don’t believe in moral victories,” Ierulli said, “but the way we played against Christopher Newport gave us a different perspective.”
It would be easy for the Scots to overlook the Monarchs on Saturday. It would also, Ierulli said, be a mistake.
“They were beating Christopher Newport by 10 at halftime (last week),” he said. “I told our team not to underestimate their record. ‘Do not look at their record and think they’re not a good football team.’”
After all, five Maryville opponents this season once felt that way about the Scots.