“It’s a rivalry if the other team wins once in a while.”
This quote from Washington & Jefferson head football coach Mike Sirianni was issued just before the annual Waynesburg-W&J game in 2014. Although the quote certainly gave the Yellow Jackets ‘bulletin board material,’ it wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
In a series that started in 1897, the Jackets had beaten the Presidents a measly three times.
Waynesburg’s third overall win over W&J took place in 2003. Two years later, the school hired Rick Shepas. Although the Shepas era brought Greene County the winningest coach in Jackets history, and some of the best football teams in recent memory, Waynesburg routinely fell short against its I-79 rival.
The Jackets entered their 2007 and 2012 matchups with the Presidents undefeated and with a chance to win a conference championship; on their home turf, no less, and instead, had to watch the Presidents celebrate another PAC coronation.
Now, let’s talk about 2014, specifically what happened at John F. Wiley Stadium five years ago this weekend. The Jackets were out of the picture as far a conference title was concerned, having lost two PAC games. Meanwhile, the Presidents destroyed everybody in their path, beating their first nine opponents by no fewer than18 points.
Waynesburg knew it had a senior-heavy group capable of taking down the Presidents, featuring school record-setting quarterback Carter Hill, and a solid core of receivers led by Bernie Thompson and Andrew English.
This piece will detail the day Waynesburg beat W&J, from the accounts of those who made it happen.
“That season in particular, we did not treat it just like another game,” Hill said, “I’ll never forget [senior linebacker] John Sikora, one of our team captains that season, made it a point to say ‘don’t treat this like it’s another game. We’ve always treated it like its another game, and it obviously hasn’t worked out for us. This is a big game. This is W&J.’”
Despite winning as many games [seven] as it would in the next three years combined, the team wasn’t satisfied with how the season played out.
Both of Waynesburg’s losses: at Bethany, in a game that ended when a potential game-winning touchdown pass by Hill was intercepted, and at home to Thomas More, when the Jackets’ were held to just seven points through three quarters in a 21-14 loss, were within reach.
Some of Waynesburg’s senior leaders felt that the Jackets could and should have gone into the W&J game perfect.
English: “I believe we were disappointed as a whole unit, because we knew we missed opportunities. We didn’t play the way we were capable of playing in those two losses.”
Hill: “We definitely feel like we let those couple losses get away from us. We probably [should] have won at least one of those games. Going into W&J, it would officially make our season if we could take them out. There’s nothing better than beating your rival, weather you’re 0-9 going into the game or 9-0 going into the game.”
Thompson: “Realistically, our team right there, we should have been 9-0. But we weren’t.”
Kyle Richey, senior linebacker: “Amongst the seniors, we really wanted to be in the [NCAA] playoffs. The last time we had a chance to go to the playoffs, we tied with W&J for the conference and they won, and they went to the playoffs. Which I think left a bad taste in a lot of our mouths.”
“Grabbing the Beard”
It was senior day, and, by all accounts, a perfect day for football; a sunny, chilly afternoon that screamed early November, and would turn into an autumn dusk by the final whistle. Waynesburg didn’t have an undefeated season to preserve or a conference title to fight for, but the Jackets knew how significant this day was.
English: “Waking up, walking out toward Benedum [Dining] Hall, you take a moment to reflect on everything. All the prior games leading up to this game, the bus ride down to the stadium, you sit there, and personally I would daydream about a play that I would make. There’s always a player that would make a special play. You never know who’s going to be that person, but you just know that someone is going to make a big splash play.”
Hill: “The overall feel to the team was just focused. There wasn’t much talking, to be honest. The talking was over.”
Shepas agreed with his quarterback, and didn’t feel the need for a motivational pregame speech. He left that to Sikora.
After hearing W&J chirping during pregame warmups, Sikora thought about an analogy he heard from somebody he knew in Youngstown, Ohio, and tied it to the mighty Presidents.
Sikora: “They want to be the bully. I think they feed off that image. But I think in some cases in life, you get close to that bully, and he’s a lot bigger than you and a lot better than you. Perception isn’t always reality, and you get close enough, and that bully has that big bearded feature. I just talked about going up to the bully and grabbing the beard. You pull as hard as you can, and you’re going to find out that really behind that beard is a child. That was the gist of it.”
Waynesburg’s offense was one that could go after an opposing defense in multiple ways.
Running back Jake Forsythe had rushed for more than 1,000 yards, so the Jackets could wear out a defense by keeping the ball on the ground if they had too. Waynesburg’s identity, however, was through the air. Hill lit up PAC defenses all year, ending the season with 34 touchdown passes.
Thompson: “Their front seven was really tough, so we knew that we could air it out on them. We knew that we could have matchups on the outside that myself, Andrew English, Zac Capan, Tim Cooper, Willie Leavell, we knew that we would have mismatches there.”
English: “We knew we had wonderful matchups on the outside. [With] a quarterback like Carter Hill, we knew we were going to be able to air the ball out and do things of that nature.”
Thompson: “We wanted to come out and punch them right in the mouth. We wanted to send a message, A. We’re not scared of you, and B. We’re better than you. We [weren’t going to] back down at all, and I think that’s what we did in the first series.
Shepas: “My mindset going into the game was to stay aggressive in the play calling, and to make sure the offensive did their jobs.”
A see-saw battle
For 60 minutes, both sides took shots, and gave them back.
Waynesburg took the ball to start the game, and in 1:22, drew first blood.
English: “I remember that first drive like it was yesterday.”
And he should, because he was the one who capped it off with a 5-yard touchdown reception, kickstarting a 10-catch, 181-yard afternoon.
The rest of the first quarter was a prelude to how the afternoon would unfold, with both teams trading touchdowns before the end of the frame. For the next two quarters, the Waynesburg offense hit a lull, and the Presidents’ scored twice to go ahead, 21-14. The second touchdown came on one of Hill’s three interceptions, which went alongside four touchdown passes.
Thompson: “We threw a punch, and we knew that they were going to throw a punch back. It’s all about just handling that next step. Handling the adversity. In 2013, we threw the first punch, we threw it down and scored right on them. Then they answered, and we didn’t have an answer for them. So we knew that we needed to bounce back, and make big plays throughout the whole game.”
Indeed, the Jackets made some big plays. On the first play of the fourth quarter, English hauled in a 39-yard pass to tie the game at 21.
Four minutes later, Thompson made the catch of the day to put the Jackets back ahead. Waynesburg’s defense held up until the final minute, when Pete Coghlan hit Max Creighan for a touchdown.
All of a sudden, the game was tied, and if history repeated itself, Waynesburg would fold. But this team knew better.
Thompson: “We never flinched. We really didn’t. That goes back to the leadership. As soon as they scored to tie it and go into overtime, I remember walking out with the other captains at coin toss and just thinking, ‘Let’s go.’ I felt real confident. We’re thankful to be here, and let’s go make it happen.’ There was no doubt in our minds.”
Hill: “We were jacked up. We were ready to go, and we wanted to end it on offense. We wanted to score when we got the ball. We were trying to throw a touchdown pass right away, the first couple plays.
“The Wildman” strikes
The Presidents got the ball to start overtime, and Waynesburg’s defense was ready. The Jackets stopped W&J on three plays, forcing them to attempt a 31-yard-field goal. Now, an unlikely hero was about the step up.
Kyle Richey was unlikely not because of his play as a linebacker and on special teams, where he blocked two kicks in a win over Case-Western Reserve, but because, early in the game, he hurt his knee, and later, it was revealed to be a torn ACL.
This was Richey’s first chance to play against Washington & Jefferson in a varsity game. Ironically enough, he had torn his ACL the year before. He also missed the 2012 game due to suspension. He was part of a meaningless JV victory over the Presidents his freshman year, and wasn’t about the let a chance at the real thing slip away.
W&J lined up for the kick, and Richey, who had just taken off a knee brace that limited his mobility, blocked it, putting Waynesburg in the driver’s seat.
Richey: “I hit the ground, I looked up, I [saw] the ball in [defensive back] Mitch Vacek’s lap. He began to run with it, and I was like [crap], we’re about to win this game right now.”
Thompson: “He’s a wildman. I don’t think anybody was shocked. That just goes on to tell the story even more than he did all that and he had an ACL tear.”
After the block, Waynesburg’s offense wanted to end it right away, sticking with the aggressive plan Shepas had instilled from the outset. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way the team planned, and instead, the Jackets went three-and-out.
Shepas: “If you remember the beginning of overtime, I thought it was unique, because we go right for the jugular on the first play of the overtime. Carter Hill throws a great pass to Tim Cooper, and Tim kind of lays out for the ball, and he doesn’t come up with it. At the end of the day, we [remained] aggressive.”
Thompson: “Initially, we were upset that we didn’t score ourselves. I think two of the three plays, we tried to take shots at the end zone to end it right then and there.”
Now, it was all up to kicker.
“Scotty Balls” brings it home
After the offense failed to put the ball in the end zone, it was up to Lewis, nicknamed “Scotty Balls” to win it for Waynesburg. Initially, Lewis wanted the ball on the left hash, but Shepas wanted it on the right hash, and designed plays on the previous series accordingly.
With the ball now on the right hash, Lewis booted it. Although the kick wobbled and looked uncertain to the average eye, Hill, who held the snap, knew what the result was right away.
Hill: “I knew it was through just by the thud of the ball. It might have barley gone through, but I knew when he hit it that it was going through.”
Before the ball officially went through the uprights, Hill tackled Lewis out of pure joy. After the kick was officially good, pandemonium ensued.
The next few minutes were a gumbo of hugs, helmets banging against the locker room wall, and loud, off-key singing of the school fight song [Waynesburg will find a way to be number one, hey!].
W&J still had the conference title, but for this moment, the rivalry belonged to Waynesburg. After the celebration, came, in the words of Thompson, “the greatest night in Waynesburg history.”
English: “The locker room after the game was absolutely an amazing experience. We had guys banging their helmets off lockers. Just being so happy and excited.”
Hill: “To be able to celebrate with my teammates like that and finally get it done on our senior year was an awesome experience.”
Richey: “I think the first thing I did, I think I looked [Mike] Kaybay, who at the time was our equipment manager, and I think I gave him a hug and said ‘we finally did it.’ I think when he hit that kick, everyone knew it was right. It was poetic justice.”
Sikora: “To us, I think it represented the guys that came before us, that couldn’t, for whatever reason, just couldn’t get that done. There’s some crazy things that bounced different ways, and I think we saw that with those guys. You get back to campus, and you’re checking your phones, and your phones are just blowing up with guys you played with. They felt as if they were out there playing with us.”
“Hey, you’re the guy who hit the field goal, aren’t you?”
For Lewis’ remaining three semesters at Waynesburg, that’s the question he heard constantly. His kick beat W&J, and the student body was more than happy to remind him of that. Lewis made it a point, however, to never let his newfound fame get to his head.
Lewis: Coach [Scott] Venick always told me afterwards whenever I’d be up watching film or whatever, he’d look at me and be like “you made one kick,” and I said “yeah, I did make one kick, and that was in the past.'”
To add to Waynesburg’s joy, Lewis’ heroics just might have affected W&J’s playoff run, too.
The Presidents won their first round matchup at Wittenberg, before falling to powerhouse Mt. Union on the road in the second round. Had W&J defeated Waynesburg, Sirianni isn’t certain his team would have had to play the Raiders at all.
Sirianni: “It cost us a home game. It might have cost us two [home games]. We played Mt. Union in the second round, and obviously no one is successful against them in the playoffs ever. So yeah, we’d already cliched the conference championship, but we still had a lot to play for. It cost us a lot.”
Since that day in 2014, the Presidents have won two conference titles; and got to celebrate against Waynesburg both times; while Waynesburg has had a record of 12-37. The tide of the rivalry has unquestionably turned back in W&J’s favor, but for Lewis, that victory forever solidified that Waynesburg and Washington & Jefferson will never be an ordinary game.
Lewis: “We won that game. So it’s always going to be a rivalry. That game basically solidified the rivalry forever.”