RIVALS SERIES: Ithaca solidifies case for home field advantage, likely knocking out resurgent rival Shepherd
SHEPHERD — That one hurt.
You could see it in the tear-streaked faces of the Shepherd Bluejays, who were still littered about the north end zone at Veterans Memorial Stadium more than 20 minutes after the conclusion of Friday’s 29-12 loss to Ithaca in the regular-season finale.
It hurt, because it’s quite possibly the end of the new beginning to the program’s resurgence: Unable to get the win to automatically qualify for the postseason, the Bluejays will have to hope they’ve accumulated enough playoff points to get in at 5-4.
And it hurt, because they Bluejays are finally getting back to the stage where losses — after averaging seven per season for more than a decade — are a crushing feeling again.
“There’s been a defense mechanism that’s built up, when you’ve lost for so long, that you’re OK with it pretty soon afterwards. This one’s gonna hurt for a long time, and that’s probably a good thing for our program — because we’re going to remember it, and it’ll be a motivation for next year, and the years for come,” said second-year head coach Ben Brock. “You can tell it hurts tonight, with the loss, because they fully expected to win.”
And that wasn’t an unreal expectation, especially since they played toe-to-toe with Ithaca (8-1) for the better part of three quarters. A five-minute span in the third, where they Yellowjackets pulled away with two unanswered scores, was ultimately the difference.
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The worst fear for Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook was that the Bluejays would come out fired up, and the Yellowjackets — already guaranteed a playoff spot — wouldn’t be able to match it.
“They did. We knew coming on the road it was going to be tough, and they want to get into the playoffs in the worst way. And Ben’s doing a great job of trying to build that Shepherd pride back. We talked about it in the locker room, and you knew we were going to get their best effort. Credit to them, because they played hard, but credit to our kids too, because they fought back in that second half, after we didn’t have a lot of positive things to say at halftime. I was proud of our resiliency from our football team. We came out and scored right away, and played pretty well after that,” the longtime Ithaca coach said, admitting the Week 9 challenge wasn’t a bad thing.
“There’s two approaches to that: Some guys like to have that Week 9 game that’s just a cupcake, and you get everybody some touches. Tonight, it was tough, it was physical. We had to reach down, we had to fight. I told our kids it was going to be like a playoff game, because really it was, especially for them.”
After the Yellowjackets went into halftime up just 7-6, and Hessbrook challenged his team to man up and impose their will on the game, Ithaca did just that.
Quarterback Brady Hessbrook ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage of the second half, putting the Yellowjackets up 14-6.
“That felt great. We had some great blocks on the edge, and it felt great. Just running down the sideline, hoping no one caught me,” said the junior, who finished with 131 yards rushing and 147 passing. “They wouldn’t go away. They kept fighting and kept fighting. That’s what this rivalry is all about.”
Two plays later, Shepherd answered when Logan Buckner hit Ethan Deming with a 68-yard catch and run for a score. The PAT pass failed, leaving Ithaca up 14-12.
Shepherd had answered Ithaca’s opening score — a 37-yard pass from Hessbrook to Chad Pratt — with one of their own in the first half, too. Taking advantage of a short field set up by an interception by Korrbin Gluch, Sawyer Travis scored on a 5-yard run.
“They’ve got Sawyer Travis back there, and he’s got a chance to go the distance at any time. And the (Joey) Lynch kid’s a pretty good athlete. Then the Buckner kid’s hard to tackle. We had a heck of a time tackling Buckner. It seems like several times we had him wrapped up with what I thought would be big losses, and then he turns around and breaks a tackle or two, and then throws the deep ball. So that was kind of frustrating from our standpoint,” Terry Hessbrook said. “But we’ve gotta do a better job of tackling.”
A fourth-down pass interference call allowed Ithaca to keep alive a scoring drive that would result in a 3-yard touchdown run by Brady Hessbrook and a 21-12 lead with 7:52 left in the third quarter.
“Really, we looked at this as our first week of playoffs, because this was their game to get in, so it was huge for them, and we’re trying to play for home-field advantage. So it’s a great game, and we had to be really locked in and focused,” said Brady Hessbrook, who grew up around the rivalry, as a waterboy in his younger years. “Definitely. That sticks in your head. You see the trash talking and all that stuff, even if you’re a little guy, and you remember that.”
A fumble recovery by Tony Bellinger set up a short field for a 2-yard touchdown run by Brayden Shaw with 2:17 left in the third. Derek Draher’s 2-point run made it a 29-12 game.
Shepherd would get the ball inside the red zone in the final four minutes of the game, but turn it over on downs at the Ithaca 4-yard line with 3:05 left, allowing the Yellowjackets to run out the clock with one first down.
“It was a big game for them, a big game for us, to get us ready for the playoffs. We just had to keep our composure, keep grinding it out,” Shaw said. “Feels great. We ended up with one loss this (regular season), but going into the playoffs 8-1 is just a great feeling. Couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to do it with. I’m just ready to go.”
While the Yellowjackets will gather Sunday evening to watch the MHSAA selection show, and see where they’re placed in the postseason, the Bluejays will do their own thing.
With 43.111 playoff points, the chances of them getting in to the playoffs with an at-large bid isn’t great: Of the 58 teams that ended Friday night with 5-4 records, 41 of them had more playoff points than the Bluejays.
Still, this season — after going 1-8 last year, and 15-66 since 2010 — is a step toward rejuvenating a Shepherd program that averaged eight wins per season from 1987-2000, making two trips to the semifinals.
“We’re on the cusp. Like I told the kids, you’re either the beginning of the evolution or the end of the bad,” Brock said. “I’m just so happy for these seniors. They went through so many games of just being the whipping boys. And for them to come out this year and say ‘I’m one of the eight of the 32 kids that lasted in my grade.’ I’m just so proud of them for doing this, and grateful for them putting the time in, because it wasn’t fun. We were out here 6 a.m., 7 a.m., four days a week in the summer. When our kids could’ve gone and had some fun, they decided to come in and work, without ever winning before this year. …
“I just feel so lucky to be able to come home and give an effort like they did tonight. I’m so proud of them. I really happy that their parents bought into the system, and held them accountable, too. That’s a big piece in today’s football.”