Maryville College was way behind when it joined the USA South Athletic Conference four years ago.
The Scots had bottomed out, losing all 10 games, only three years before. Maryville had hired a new coach just two years before being admitted. The league the Scots were joining had a pair of established powers against which the rest of the conference had enjoyed little, if any, success.
Then last Saturday happened.
Maryville (4-5, 3-3) stunned conference frontrunner Christopher Newport, 21-14, in convincing fashion in Newport News, Va., the Scots collecting their first win over the Captains in five tries. Christopher Newport entered the contest 25-3 at home against USA South competition the last eight years.
“Even though we hadn’t had the success we would have liked, we had a great week of practice,” Maryville coach Tony Ierulli said. “We made everyone accountable for mistakes, and everyone kind of stood up.”
The Scots close out the 2009 season hosting Ferrum College (4-5, 2-4) on Saturday at Honaker Field.
Kickoff is 1:30 p.m.
It isn’t so much the first-ever win over Christopher Newport that has the Scots flying high entering the finale. It’s what Maryville overcame for it to happen that resonates.
The Scots journeyed to Virginia having lost their last three, including a 51-17 shellacking at North Carolina Wesleyan College two weeks prior. The injuries were mounting at a terrific pace. Junior defensive back Bud Christy, second in the USA South with eight interceptions on the year, didn’t even make the trip.
Junior quarterback Tim Conner hadn’t practiced all week. He’d spent the time with his right, throwing arm in a sling, a shoulder injury severely limiting his ability to lift his hand above his waist without pain. Doctors advised the Tavares, Fla., native the shoulder would require four months of inactivity to heal.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t really have four months right now,’” Conner said. “We were kind of hurting, so I had to go.”
Conner was limited to 10 warm up throws Saturday, with assistant coaches doing much of the work to get Maryville’s receivers ready to play.
“We weren’t even sure if he’d play Saturday,” Ierulli said.
The Scots really didn’t have the option of turning to Conner’s backup. Freshman Chris Shelton was battling the same injury. To make matters worse, Conner took a hit on his injured shoulder early in the opening quarter.
“I tried to get out of bounds,” he said. “I lowered my right shoulder, and he hit me directly on it.”
The Scots drew first blood, though, Conner connecting with senior tight end Jon Caughron on a 3-yard scoring pass with two minutes to play in the opening quarter. It wasn’t an early score, however, that emboldened Maryville. The Captains returned fire in the second quarter, a pair of touchdowns lifting Christopher Newport to a 14-7 lead at the half.
The Captains, however, had been far from dominant. Ranked second in the conference in rushing at 201.9 yards per game, Christopher Newport would dent Maryville’s defense for only 72 yards Saturday - on 41 attempts. The Captains collected one score on a trick play.
Senior Kyle Chewning, who has led the Scots in tackles in each of the last three seasons, led Maryville in shutting down the Christopher Newport running game with 10 stops, including a pair of tackles for loss.
“We really came together as a defense,” the Maryville captain said. “It was one of those things where we wanted to go out there.”
The Scots, who had dropped the previous three meetings by average score of 42-19, had steadily closed the gap to the Captains each of the last four years.
“Every year, we’d gotten closer and closer,” Ierulli said. “The problem was they’d play so well in the first quarter, you spend the rest of the game trying to catch up.”
Not this time.
Conner delivered a super crisp afternoon passing, completing 11 of his 17 throws for 165 yards and two scores. Late in the third quarter, the defense got the ball back, Maryville forcing and recovering a Christopher Newport fumble at the Captains’ 30-yard line. Conner had the Scots in the end zone in six plays, doing the honors himself on a 1-yard run to tie the score at 14-all with 12 minutes remaining.
After that, “We could just kind of smell it,” Chewning said.
Saving his best for last, Conner found senior Sam McCord for a 39-yard score to regain the lead for Maryville with eight minutes remaining. Chewning, fellow senior Joel Byars and sophomores Tanner Caylor and Caleb Clement then paced a Maryville defense that ensured the lead stood the rest of the way.
Clement picked off a Christopher Newport pass on the game’s final play. Caylor, like Conner, had been held out of practice during the week because of injury.
“He didn’t practice one snap all week and refused to come out of the football game,” Ierulli said.
The win over the Captains firmly entrenches Maryville as a conference contender. It also makes a home loss to Averett four weeks ago especially galling. The Scots led the Cougars, 21-6, after a quarter, only to see Averett brush the deficit aside in rallying to a 24-21 win. Four weeks later, the Cougars are hosting North Carolina Wesleyan College on Saturday to decide the conference championship.
The Scots have now proven they can run with the conference big dogs. Wesleyan won handily two weeks ago, but, only a year ago, Maryville reeled in the Bishops, 27-24, at Honaker Field, Wesleyan then the defending conference champion and the nation’s No. 18-ranked team entering the season.
“What we try to teach them is to play tough and play physical,” Ierulli said. “We may not be the biggest or fastest, but we tell everybody we try to be the toughest.”
Wining the big game is no longer the problem, Ierulli said. It’s winning consistently, finishing teams when they should, that will take the Scots the last mile of the journey from contender to champion, he said.
“It’s a fine line between being great and being good,” Ierulli said. “When the opportunity arises, you’ve got to seize it. This team has to learn how to put teams away when it gets the chance.”
Ferrum (4-5) constitutes a tough, finishing game to the 2009 campaign. The Panthers bring to town the conference’s top-ranked rushing attack, Ferrum’s wishbone offense pounding opponents for 295.0 yard per game. In a classic matchup of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, Maryville possesses the league’s top-ranked defense, the Scots holding the opposition to a conference-low 133.8 yards per game on the ground.
“This is going to be a tough football game,” Ierulli said. “The key is going to be first down. Are we going to be able to get them in second- and third-and-long?”
The key, Chewning said, lies in the Scots remembering who they are in the first place.
“Our name,” he said. “We take pride in being ‘Fighting Scots.’ No matter what, we’re going to go down swinging.
“Beating Christopher Newport was huge. They’re a very good team. That’s just something we as seniors wanted to do before we graduated.”
With that goal achieved, another brick in the Captain’s Walk, the pathway adjacent to Honaker Field where Maryville’s leaders are immortalized for future teams, now fits snuggly in place.