Andy Stanko Columnist

On the final week of the 2014 regular season, the Waynesburg football team defeated Washington & Jefferson for only the fourth time in program history, making the season a success despite not claiming a Presidents’ Athletic Conference title.

With the win, the Waynesburg senior class of 2014 claimed its place as one of the finest in school history, but the game also marked the slamming of the window of opportunity for Waynesburg to claim a PAC crown.

Just one look at the 2014 All-PAC teams is enough to know that Waynesburg is in for a 2015 campaign filled with plenty of new faces in important places, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Waynesburg led the PAC with five, first-team honorees on offense. The Jackets must replace a first-team quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and offensive lineman. Virtually the rest of the skill position contributors for Waynesburg appeared in the second-team and honorable mentions. 

When head coach Rick Shepas called for a formation with wide receivers Bernie Thompson and Andrew English, tight end Zac Capan and running backs Willie Leavell and Jake Forsythe, he had the luxury of five All-PAC skill position players at the disposal for two-time All-PAC first-team quarterback Cater Hill. Only fifth-year senior Leavell remains from that group as an explosive returner, rushing and receiving threat. 

Forsythe’s offensive production—237 carries and almost 1,159 yards—will have to go somewhere else in 2015. Thompson, English and Capan’s production—totaling 150 catches for 1,822 yards and 26 touchdowns—is also missing from the 2015 roster.

Defensively, Waynesburg bid farewell to J.T. Thompson and Mike Lopuchovsky, both named second-team all-conference for 2014. Linebackers Kyle Richey and John Sikora, along with defensive end Josh Tolliver were recognized as honorable mentions on the All-Conference teams, leaving just cornerback Josh Mundell and defensive lineman Zach Machuga as the only returning All-PAC performers to the defense.

Despite beginning the season as a question mark without standouts Brian Gary and Brandon Fedorka, the defense proved itself throughout the season and especially in the final two games of the regular season.

The unit held Thomas More and W&J to a combined 42 points. Thomas More and W&J were the top-two scoring offenses in the PAC, each averaging over 40 points per game.

After stability at the quarterback position for the past two-plus years, Waynesburg enters 2015 with just one player with a pass attempt as a member of the Jackets, and that’s Leavell. Hill’s backup Dave O’Brien also graduated, leaving a hole behind center.

Waynesburg entered 2014 with an offense virtually intact from the previous season with a senior quarterback at the helm, surrounded by experienced offensive weapons. W&J, Bethany, Westminster, Thiel and Geneva all broke in new field generals in 2014, while Saint Vincent had two senior quarterbacks learning a completely different offensive system under a brand new coaching staff.

Now what had been the Jackets’ greatest strength, experience on the offensive side of the ball, has transformed into their biggest question mark.

When Jake Dougherty took his first snap Saturday against Muskingum, it began a new era of Waynesburg football, an era that unfortunately coincides with a further along Pete Coughlin era for W&J. Week one was start number 15 for Ryan Radke in Thiel. Aaron Channing from Geneva and Paul Columbo from Westminster go from rookie quarterbacks to second-year starters. Brian Vales does not return to Bethany who will have to go through the process all over again with a defense and skill position players who seemed poised to chase a PAC title with progression from Vales.

Despite the obvious experience gap and continuity advantage Waynesburg’s offense held over virtually every opponent, the Jackets barely eked out wins over first-year starters Channing, Radke, Columbo and Coughlin.

Waynesburg does not have the game-tested youth other teams may have to roll out in 2015 because 2014 was a year to chase the PAC championship with experienced leaders on both sides of the ball.

The team showed it certainly had the propensity to compete with anyone in the conference by handing a nationally ranked and unbeaten W&J team its lone loss of the regular season.

Waynesburg escaped with road victories over Westminster and Thiel, but both teams return a bulk of talent and seem poised to progress to more success in the coming seasons.

Westminster’s quarterback, Columbo, was all but written off after starting the season 0-4 with one touchdown and four interceptions, but after playing Thomas More, W&J and Bethany in his first four PAC games, he lit the rest of the conference on fire.

Columbo threw at least three touchdown passes in each of the final six weeks of the season with just four interceptions on route to a 4-2 finish to the season after opening up 0-5.

He engineered a 79-yard fourth quarter scoring drive against Waynesburg that he capped with a 5-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass before Waynesburg rallied back and won the game.

Saying Westminster’s offense was young at the skill positions would almost have been an understatement for 2014. The Titans leading passer, top three rushers and top two receivers were all freshmen.

The team closed the season on a 4-2 run, and of its six losses, only two were by a margin greater than one possession.

Thiel, like Westminster, led Waynesburg with fewer than four minutes to play before the Jackets rallied to win the game in the closing moments. The Tomcats have perhaps the most elusive and volatile offensive weapon in the PAC with junior quarterback Ryan Radke.

Radke threw for 317 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for another 81 yards and a score against Waynesburg in perhaps his most complete performance of the season. Radke and the Tomcats showed flashes of greatness throughout the season by competing with the top teams in the conference.

Thiel led Bethany and Thomas More at halftime before getting blown out in both games. The Tomcats dug holes too big to climb out of against Case Western and Westminster, but pulled off substantial late rallies in both games.

Finally, W&J lost much less than the Jackets. Running back Ryan Ruffing returns as a senior, quarterback Pete Coughlin enters his junior year in 2015 and three of Coughlin’s top four receiving threats return to a frenetic offense that was not only atop the PAC, but also among the best in Division III last season. It took signature performances by no less than eight Yellow Jacket seniors to best the Presidents in last year’s contest.

It was a perfect storm for Waynesburg to make some noise in 2014 and the Jackets validated the season by defeating W&J. The landscape of the PAC has changed with contenders brewing in St. Vincent and Westminster and established powers of Thomas More and W&J reloading as they always do.

The Yellow Jackets team that took the field on Saturday is a completely new contingent than the experienced and accomplished group that left Waynesburg as members of the class of 2014. It is important to temper championship expectations because of the likely growing pains that come with inexperience and youth. The window has closed.

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