District college football preview: Slippery Rock seeks first NCAA playoff win since 1998
Slippery Rock senior Austin Miele’s football career soon will end — certainly within a month — but the Mars graduate wants the story of his time on the field, with its many twists and turns, to include one last flourish.
Miele, a first-team All-PSAC West linebacker who previously starred at free safety and who transferred to The Rock after a strong freshman season at FCS St. Francis (Pa.), and the rest of The Rock’s seniors are part of the program’s strongest four-year stretch since the late 1990s. And to continue their careers, they must lead Slippery Rock (9-2) to a win over No. 15 West Chester (10-1) in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Rock, seeded fifth in Super Region One, and the fourth-seeded Golden Rams kick off at noon Saturday at John A. Farrell Stadium. The winner gets No. 10 and regional top seed Concord (11-0) in the second round.
Slippery Rock seeks its first playoff win since 1998. It is 0-2 in first-round games since then.
“Coming into this year, I wouldn’t say I doubted this team, but I knew we were inexperienced and just a younger team in general, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” said Miele, one of 13 starters who returned to a team that also lost 13. “So it’s been a great time working with the coaches and all the defensive guys who have really gotten after it.”
An improved defense, led by All-PSAC first-teamers Miele, redshirt senior defensive back Admire Carter (Beaver Falls) and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Marcus Martin (West Mifflin), allowed Slippery Rock to recover from back-to-back losses and win its final three regular-season games as well as the PSAC title game 28-26 over then-No. 5 Bloomsburg a week ago.
“It’s pretty much been a playoff run (since the losses),” Miele said. “We’ve definitely been battle-tested and had some adversity, and I think the team has responded well. We kept our confidence the whole time.”
The PSAC accolades also helped raise morale. Martin, the PSAC leader in tackles for a loss (22.5) and sacks (16), earned the West division’s Freshman of the Year honor.
Of the 10 Slippery Rock players who received first- or second-team all-conference recognition, only three are seniors.
That bodes well for The Rock’s future. But in its way this weekend is star-studded, senior-heavy West Chester.
Nine Golden Rams received first-team All-PSAC East recognition, and another four garnered second-team nods. Senior quarterback Sean McCartney became the East’s Offensive Athlete of the Year after averaging 272.5 yards passing per game, completing 60.3 percent of his attempts and throwing 34 touchdowns.
“We are playing an all-star team,” joked Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik, who noted that West Chester reached the Division II semifinals a season ago. “We realize it feels great to be the PSAC champions, but we also realize it’s a one-game season now.”
West Chester, which won seven straight before a 41-10 loss to Bloomsburg Oct. 25, realizes Slippery Rock is more dangerous than its lack of a top-25 ranking in the American Football Coaches Association poll suggests.
“I wasn’t shocked that they beat them,” Golden Rams coach Bill Zwaan said of The Rock’s win over Bloomsburg. “They’re what really looks like a good PSAC West team with a lot of talent that plays physically.”