Winning cures a long list of problems. Completing a perfect season takes that to a new level. It affords coaches certain luxuries like smiling once and a while. For coaches like Shorter’s Aaron Kelton who were on the opposite end of that perfect season paradigm, winning one game is a daily preoccupation.
Up until Friday, Kelton was as optimistic as any about the Hawks’ chances of getting the season’s first win on Saturday. He had every right to be optimistic with the Mars Hill Mountain Lions coming to dust it up in Rome.
In 2016, Shorter lost to Mars Hill on the road in overtime. The Mountain Lions scored the last 14 points of the game including 7 in overtime. It was the second of many losses the Hawks endured last year.
Expectations for the outcome were high this year as second-year starting quarterback Tyler Pullum returned with a full year of experience under his belt. According to coach Kelton, the staff and team had a good camp. Then the unexpected happened. At 3:00 pm on Friday, as they were walking onto the field for walk-throughs, Coach Kelton learned that the NCAA had declared 12 of his players ineligible for Saturday’s game. Coach Kelton likened the late ruling by the governing sports body to the trials and tribulations of everyday life. “We didn’t do a good job of overcoming them today,” explained Kelton.
Division 2 football teams are only allowed 36 full scholarships as opposed to the 85 offered at the Division 1 FBS level. Losing 12 players was significant. “It hurt our depth,” said Kelton. “You gotta have depth in this game “ There were 7 guys who were heavy rotation guys. A couple of those kids were seniors. They have been here playing for three years. Those kids are invaluable because of their game experience. Now you gotta put out two or three freshmen kids who you didn’t expect to play. And that’s just hard to do.”
On the second play of the game, Mars Hill senior quarterback David Salmon went up top and found senior receiver Keshaun Taylor for a 61-yard touchdown. The Mountain Lions scored four touchdowns before five minutes had expired in the second quarter. “Defensively we were impacted by the lack of our roster more than anything,” added Kelton.
The Hawks had a few opportunities that could have changed the flow of the game. In response to the Mars Hill touchdown, Pullum guided the Hawks within striking distance on four of their five possessions. They came away empty three times- two missed field goals and a Mars Hill 86-yard interception return for a touchdown. Senior tailback B.J. McCoy finally ended the streak of misfortune with a 2-yard touchdown run on the Hawks’ last possession of the half.
“We were able to move the ball up and down the field,” said Kelton. “We didn’t score but from the 20 to the 20 we were as good as anyone. We have to work our red zone game and be better about that.
Pullum proved that point leading the Hawks on a 10-play, 70-yard drive out of the half. The school record-setter went 5 for 5 through the air for 59 yards. He capped the drive from 1 yard out with his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Mars Hill answered Shorter’s score with one of their own. Aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty, the Mountain Lions third-and-four at the 42 to first-and-10 at the Shorter 24. “You can’t have a 15-yard penalty out of nowhere,” explained Kelton. “Never has a penalty helped you in a game when it’s against you.” For the game, Shorter was hit with 10 penalties for 86 yards
Ahead by 19, the Mountain Lions’ defense became more aggressive up front daring Pullum to throw deep against a secondary that was playing 10 yards off the line. Shorter’s offense spent most of the third and fourth quarters between their goal line and 40-yard line.
Saturday ended for the Hawks much like every other Saturday last season. Kelton remains upbeat believing that he and his coaching staff can change the culture of the program by getting players to commit to being better in their approach. “There are so many things that can distract guys during the day,” he said. “They gotta use their free time to come in and watch a little bit of extra tape. If it’s just 15 more minutes of studying and understanding your opponent it’s going to help you.”
All photos by Jason McDonald, JM Photography for CORE360 Sports