SPARTANBURG, S.C.–There’s an old saying when playing cards that says never show all your cards on the first hand, and for Western Carolina senior defensive back Ace Clark and junior running back Darius Ramsey, that’s exactly the way they played it at the 2014 Southern Conference media day at the Spartanburg Marriott.
Cool, calm and collective, and most of all, confident was the attitude. It would seem to be hardly an attitude that a team coming off a 2-10 record in 2013 and one that has won only four conference games over the past eight seasons, but this heir of confidence has come from a motivation deep within.
“We have been so close to getting to that point to where we can say we compete and can beat these elite teams year-in and year-out in the SoCon, and I think you saw that against a team like Wofford last season, who was ranked, yet we missed an assignment late and that ended up costing us the game,” said Clark.
The Catamounts, which battled all the way back against No. 12 Wofford last season only to drop a heartbreaking 21-17 defeat would feel the sting of that loss, after taking a 17-14 lead with 11:22 remaining.
But if there’s one thing that has become an element that has been lacking in years past, which head coach Mark Speir, who heads into his third season in Cullowhee, has added, it’s been a never-say-die attitude.
The game would seem to be well in hand for the Terriers’ ball-control offense, with just 1:21 to play and Western down to its final two timeouts. However, the Catamount defense, led by Clark, allowed a mere five yards on three plays to get the football back, with quarterback Troy Mitchell moving the ball down to the 11 on a quick 6-for-6 passing performance, however, the drive would stall from there and Wofford would escape with the four-point win after Mitchell failed to get the first down on fourth-and-two.
Those kinds of losses have plagued the Catamounts over the past couple of years, not to mention having to play five money games in the span of two seasons, with three last season alone–facing Auburn, Middle Tennessee State and Virginia Tech. In fact, Western Carolina has played the BCS national title runner-up and the BCS national champion in each of the past two seasons.
But the two veterans on-hand for Southern Conference media day now saw themselves as leaders–as extensions of a man that they continued to rave about during the valuable time I got to spend with them on this mid-July afternoon–and that man of course is Mark Speir.
Speir knew it would be a challenge when he took over in the mountains of Cullowhee, N.C., but things have started to settle at the foot of Balsam of mountain, and for a coach that learned patience from the best to ever coach in the Southern Conference–Appalachian State’s Jerry Moore–Speir is not only building confidence in his team, he’s building something that stretches far beyond the football field–love and leadership.
Ramsey, who was apart of Speir’s original signing class at Western and hails from Shelby, N.C., says he’s noticed a chemistry that hasn’t been there before during the off-season.
“It seems like the more we are together and working out on our on, the better chemistry we have, with doing 7-on-7s and stuff like that. I think especially with like in-game situations in the spread offense, we are starting to recognize things within a game as far as defensive tendencies and things like that that we weren’t able to really recognize before and that all comes with gaining a chemistry with each other, as well as just experience in general.”
Speir, an avid Nascar fan from Kannapolis, N.C., has probably shared even a few Dale Earnhardt stories with his team in his first two seasons in Cullowhee, and no doubt, his team pays attention to whatever advice Speir offers them, whether football-related, or life-related.
“Coach Speir has been amazing and he’s an amazing man. He’s the kind of guy we all know we can talk to about football, but at the end of the day, sometimes you just need someone to talk to about life in general because it gets tough sometimes managing all you have to manage in college,” Clark said.
One thing that was noticeable from talking to both Clark and Ramsey was there demeanor, it wasn’t one of slouched shoulders and looking down, giving answers that were barely audible in a timid fashion. The duo was bold, sat up straight, and were confident, eager to shake off the stigma that some would say was a losing culture, however, one glance at Speir’s smiling face and Clark and Ramsey’s boldness, and you understand that this team has a point to prove and a belief it can do it.
It was something rather astonishing to me, as today wasn’t my first Southern Conference media day, but in past events I had been to, you could tell the players that had been a part of a winning culture, as expectation was written all over there faces. If I had not known Western Carolina’s eight-season struggle prior to seeing Clark and Ramsey today, I would have never guessed it was a team that was just 11-76 in the past eight seasons.
They had a good poker face, but that’s just it. It’s no poker face, nor has this team ever quit when the chips were down. It was an honest boldness and an honest confidence from Clark and Ramsey–two guys that were fully bought into the true meaning of team.
“Our foundation has already been built, we are the future now. We want to go out and make our success in 2014. Coach Speir has done a great job of bringing back some of the old players that were a part of that great Catamount tradition of the past, and makes us hungrier to know write our own part of that tradition with how he perform this season. Our time is now,” Clark said.
I was fortunate enough to also get a few words from talented play-by-play broadcaster Gary Ayers on the prospects of this upcoming season for the Purple-and-Gold–Speir’s third season in charge of the Catamount football program.
“I think a successful season for us would be a 6-6 campaign, and coach Speir has been terrific with these guys, and you can really see them growing as a team, but also as men, and that I think is the most important thing. When I think of some of the great past head coaches we have had here at Western, coach Speir reminds me a lot of Steve Hodgin,” Ayers said.
Hodgin is likely considered the unluckiest coach in the history of Western Carolina football, with heartbreaking finishes to the 1992 and ’93 seasons, which saw the Catamounts lose their final three games (2 in 1993 and one in ’92) by a combined 10 points, including a pair of gut-wrenching losses to Appalachian State in Jug battles by a cumulative total of just six points in two matchups.
|Head Coach Mark Speir and Jr. RB Darius Ramsey|
Few would argue those Hodgin clubs–led by high octane offenses that featured the likes of Lonnie Galloway under center and Craig Aiken and Kerry Hayes at wide receiver–were not worthy of the postseason. In fact, I hold the belief that if Western had qualified for the I-AA playoffs in either of those seasons, they would have made some noise once in the show.
Ramsey and Clark head into an important season for Western Carolina on their respective sides of the
football in 2014, and both are integral parts on how the 2014 season–one that could prove pivotal in the future of Western Carolina football–plays out. Speir himself would tell you the most important season during his time at Appalachian State was the 2004 campaign, and that season-ending loss to Western in the waning seconds. That moment helped fuel three-straight title runs for Speir’s Mountaineers.
Ramsey enters his junior season with 1,068 rushing yards and six scores in two seasons, along with 217 receiving yards and a TD catch, but while he could become the first 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Fudge in 2006, and finish among the school’s all-time leading rushers with two strong seasons running the football for the Catamounts, it’s obvious that personal goals aren’t what he or Clark are concerned with.
“I just want to win and win now. I want to get the fans back here like they used to be when great players like Brad Hoover and David Patten were here. I want us to show the people of the mountains we can give them a team to be proud of and a team they look forward to coming out and supporting each and every Saturday,” said Ramsey.
Clark, who’s a senior, has been the heartbeat of this rise back to the tradition of past Catamount teams, having posted 262-career tackles, 11 PBUs and two INTs, the hard-hitting Clark has most certainly made past Catamount greats like Cranston Johnson and Eric Johnson proud and he has continued to carry the torch for the many greats to play for the Catamounts.
“It’s really simple for us, we want to win and that’s what we came here to do. We are doing this for more than ourselves, and it’s about the family we have created here in the mountains,” added Clark.
Maybe Western has just one card left to play, and maybe that’s an ‘Ace’ in 2014. We’ll have to wait and see, but I can’t wait to watch these guys in action this fall.
Below are the SoCon All-Conference teams and projections according to the media and coaches.
2014 Southern Conference Preseason Coaches Poll
School (First-place votes) Points
1. Chattanooga (6) 48
2. Furman (1) 40
Samford (1) 40
4. Wofford 30
5. Western Carolina 24
6. The Citadel 22
7. Mercer 10
2014 SoCon Football Preseason Media Poll
School (First-place votes) Points
1. Chattanooga (29) 235
2. Furman (1) 203
3. Samford 174
5. Western Carolina 105
6. The Citadel 103
7. Mercer 67
8. VMI 38
2014 Southern Conference Football Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Jacob Huesman, Jr., QB, Chattanooga
Defensive Players of the Year: Davis Tull, Sr., DL, Chattanooga
First Team Offense
QB Jacob Huesman, Jr., QB, Chattanooga
RB Hank McCloud, Sr., Furman
RB Keon Williams, Sr., Chattanooga
OL Charles Emert, Sr., Furman
OL Gunnar Bromelow, Jr., Samford
OL Synjen Herren, Jr., Chattanooga
OL Josh Wineberg, Jr., Western Carolina
OL T.J. Chamberlin, Jr., Wofford
TE Faysal Shafaat, Sr., Chattanooga
WR Andrej Suttles, So., Furman
WR Karnorris Benson, Jr., Western Carolina
First Team Defense
DL Justin Oxendine, Sr., The Citadel
DL Gary Wilkins, Sr., Furman
DL Davis Tull, Sr., Chattanooga
DL Tarek Odom, Sr., Wofford
LB Carl Robinson, Sr., The Citadel
LB Marcus McMorris, Sr., Furman
LB Carl Rider, Jr., Furman
DB Reggie Thomas, Jr., Furman
DB James Bradberry, Jr., Samford
DB Jaquiski Tartt, Sr., Samford
DB Sertonuse Harris, Jr., Western Carolina
First Team Specialists
PK Warren Handrahan, So., Samford
P Greg Peranich, Sr., Samford
RS Shaun Warren, Sr., Western Carolina
Second Team Offense
QB Reese Hannon, Jr., Furman
RB Darius Ramsey, Jr., Western Carolina
RB Will Gay, Jr., Wofford
OL Joe Turner, Jr., Furman
OL C.H. Scruggs, Jr., Samford
OL Corey Levin, So., Chattanooga
OL Andrew Marcotte, Sr., VMI
OL Anton Wahrby, So., Wofford
TE Tony Philpot, Jr., Samford
WR Karel Hamilton, So., Samford
WR Terryon Robinson, So., Western Carolina
Second Team Defense
DL Ira McCune, Sr., Furman
DL Jerry Mathis, Sr., Samford
DL Josh Freeman, Jr., Chattanooga
DL Derrick Lott, Sr., Chattanooga
LB Bobby Wilson, Jr., Samford
LB Christon Gill, Sr., Western Carolina
LB Kevin Thomas, Sr., Wofford
DB Trey Robinson, So., Furman
DB Ace Clark, Sr., Western Carolina
DB Chris Armfield, So., Wofford
DB Bernard Williams, Sr., Wofford
Second Team Specialists
PK Richard Sigmon, Sr., Western Carolina
P Nick Pollard, Sr., Chattanooga
RS Will Gay, Jr., Wofford