(Above) Josh Gontarek (19)
Are you ready for some home-town college football? Our local Shepherd University Rams open practice this week, looking ahead to their season opener on September 1. The Rams are coming off a heart-pounding 13 win, 2 loss season, a run that extended into the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Playoffs. Quarterback Tyson Bagent smashed nearly all of Shepherd’s passing records and brought home the Harlan Hill Trophy, the small-college equivalent of the Heisman.
Bagent returns for his senior year, and Shepherd head coach Ernie McCook envisions another big season in 2022. To protect Bagent in the pocket, McCook must shore up an offensive line weakened by graduation. But he returns two outstanding veteran linemen: center Adam Stilley, a graduate student from Charles Town, and All-American senior tackle Joey Fisher of Hagerstown.
These player’s stories also come with a D-II twist. To prevent D-II coaches from overdoing it during the summer, the NCAA prohibits them from interacting with any student-athlete more than eight hours per week — and then only under strict guidelines. The idea is to free D-II student-athletes to pursue other interests or earn needed cash. Translation: Stilley and Fisher spent their summers training on their own. They stretched, lifted, and sprinted day after exhausting work day for the brotherhood they call their team. They do it for the love of the game.
Over the summer, The Observer checked in periodically with both Stilley and Fischer as they eyed the approaching August 1 start of football practice. What follows is a story of total dedication from two large guys whose timely blocks will never grab headlines. Neither do they care. They just love playing football — and winning as a team.
A Daily Routine with a Purpose for Adam Stilley
June 20 — Forty-one days until football practice. Adam Stilley checked his phone. The offensive linemen, like brothers separated, group-text to support each other through the summer. They urge each other to keep training. August 1 is coming.
Adam finishes with the texts and turns to the day’s task at hand: Removing dead trees from Somerfield Beach Campground in Addison, PA, about 90 minutes northwest of Shepherdstown. His parents Lori and Robert own the commercial campground/marina, and Adam helps to maintain its 30 pristine acres along Youghiogheny River Lake, a.k.a., “The Yough.”
Up in one of the dead trees, a guy wielding a chainsaw makes a terrible racket. Adam, 6-foot-1, 290 pounds, gathers the falling branches. Tossing them into the bed of a blue Chevy truck is no problem. He bench-presses over 350 pounds and squats 485 pounds. The branches are like twigs to him.
Quitting time is about 5 p.m., and, like clockwork, Adam’s thoughts transition to football. Make that the Summer Conditioning Manual — the customized document that Coach McCook emailed to each player to guide his individual offseason workouts. Today is Monday, and the manual calls for a lower body workout. Afterwards, Adam races 10 times up and down the steep hill that leads to the Yough. It’s just him, a hill, and a dream.
Kuska: When you’re running that hill, what are you thinking?
Stilley: I’m thinking that I’m going to be the best that I can be for August and this coming season.
A Detour and a New Roadmap for Joey Fisher
June 24 — Thirty-seven days until football. It’s not quite 6 a.m., and Joey Fisher and younger brother Dustin are rolling down I-270 South to Washington D.C. with all the other Friday morning commuters.
They work for their father Jim, who owns Fisher Locks & Doors. Dad has a day off, and the Fisher brothers make their first stop at a K Street office building in the District. They install two magnetic locks. Next stop is Bethesda for more of the same, then another quick job, and on to Rockville to install electronic locks in a stairwell.“We’re not that busy today, and we’re getting the jobs done fast,” Joey explains.
Around noon, they wend their way back onto I-270 North and head home. Home is a 22-acre, partially wooded piece of heaven outside Hagerstown. It’s also where they lift in the summer and work on conditioning, the family Rottweilers always nearby. Dustin also plays for Shepherd, and both are eager for August to get here already, especially Joey. Though he’s got two years of eligibility left, next season could be his last on the “O” line. The pros are beckoning. They like his 6-foot-5, 290-pound frame, and game film showing him derailing defenders with wicked, well-timed blocks.
“It’s all right there for me,” Joey says of the coming season and the chance of making his pro dream come true. It would be the perfect denouement to a collegiate career that, through no fault of his own, once nearly was derailed, too.
At Clear Spring High School (Class of 2016), Joey was a quarterback-sacking machine, a high-octane mix of speed, strength, and tenacity. College recruiters came calling, and Joey committed verbally to the University of Maryland. But about two weeks before signing the official letter of intent, Maryland fired its head coach and replaced his staff, including the assistant who recruited Joey. Things went from bad to horrible when the incoming coaching staff asked Joey to try tight end, an unfamiliar offensive position with a steep learning curve. He passed on Maryland, calling it a “gut-wrenching experience,” and the college recruiters descended again. Joey chose local powerhouse Towson State University. But he discovered belatedly that Towson’s three-man defensive front lacked a defensive end, his natural position. And so, Joey passed on Towson and sat out the 2016 season.
Now what? His high school coach (a Shepherd alum) encouraged him to consider the Rams. A meeting was arranged in the spring of 2017, and Coach McCook welcomed him with open arms. A scholarship was tendered, and Joey said he instantly “found a home at Shepherd” with a coach he liked and respected.
McCook, a former offensive lineman and a savvy evaluator of talent, also floated an unexpected question: Have you ever considered playing offensive tackle? According to McCook’s keen eye, few offensive tackles possess Fisher’s potent mix of size and speed. With time and hard work, he’d excel on the “O” line. This time, Joey nodded yes at the position change. “At this point,” he leveled with his new coach, “I just want to play.”
A Path Blocked, then an Opening for Stilley
July 1 — One month until football. Adam Stilley made a mental note of it. But duty already called on this Friday morning. The campground was booked solid for the Fourth of July weekend, and the grounds needed some TLC. Two days ago, a thunderstorm sprayed tree branches everywhere. Adam cruised the property in the blue Chevy truck, hauling off the downed branches for firewood. Afterwards, it was on to mowing and weed whacking — acres of it. The afternoon temperature hovered in the high 70s; the 82 percent humidity descended like a warm, soggy rag.
By late afternoon, Adam parked the New Holland riding mower and revisited that mental note from the morning: one month. Like clockwork, he’s back in his workout gear. “Tonight, I’m doing some deadlifts, incline presses, and conditioning after that.”
Adam answers all questions politely — that’s his upbringing. So is his ongoing pursuit of excellence. He has a 4.0 GPA and will graduate next December with a master’s degree in Business Administration. Adam says he’ll pursue a business career or, his voice rising a tick, coaching is a possibility. His voice always rises when the subject is football.
Adam’s been playing football since he was young. And just like his teammate Joey Fisher’s experience, the path to Shepherd has become a story unto itself.
Adam took up football at age seven snapping the pigskin on a Jefferson County pee-wee team. His pee-wee quarterback: Tyson Bagent (see article in the April 2022 Observer). The two grew up together on the gridiron and starred at state prep powerhouse Martinsburg High (Stilley graduated in 2017, a year ahead of Bagent). Stilley took a chance on his college playing career — he walked on at West Virginia University without a football scholarship.
“The first few years, I was on the scout team getting beat up in practice,” he said. “I worked my tail off and became the second-string center, and I started traveling with the team to games.” But when WVU’s starting center went down with an injury in 2019, the coaches wouldn’t put a “walk-on” in the game. To this day, he’s unsure why.
But Adam got the message. He wouldn’t catch the break at WVU. Adam remembered a text exchange with Bagent, who’d noticed his friend wasn’t starting at WVU. “He wrote, ‘We could use you. If you come here, you’ll start.” Adam pondered the texts, and his gut told him to make a change. “I wanted to be somewhere where I’m playing, and in college you only get four years to get on the field.”
Adam transferred to Shepherd with high hopes. Then the pandemic hit, canceling the 2020 season. Like the rest of the Rams, he persevered and was ready to rumble last season. Five games into the season, he snapped a bone in his ankle and was finished for the year. “It definitely took some time to rehab,” he said, “but I’m fully recovered with no pain, thank the Lord.”
Kuska: How would you compare Shepherd and WVU?
Stilley: I would say it’s a lot closer than people think, the players’ ability in D-I and D-II. Shepherd is also more like a family. The players on our team, everyone wants to be here to work together to win. I also think the Shepherd fanbase is just as supportive as any D-I fanbase out there. If Shepherd had a 60,000-seat stadium, I guarantee you our fans would be just as loud as any other place in Division I.
Kuska: If you could do it all over, would you have signed with Shepherd out of high school?
Stilley: I don’t think so. I learned a lot of hard lessons. You have to fight for what you get. I fought and fought. It just didn’t work out. But I learned a lot of life lessons and met a lot of good people in Morgantown.
Making their Own Luck
July 25 — A week until football. The offensive linemen have been texting and arranging to drive to Shepherdstown to train in person.
Joey Fisher has his eye on smashing the school record for the bench press. It’s 500 pounds, and he’s close. Real close. Mostly, Joey wants to get the season started. The Rams are ranked sixth nationally in one preseason poll and, to borrow a cliche, “They could go all the way.”
To do so, they will first have to navigate the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, one of the D-II’s toughest. As McCook reminds his players: “Nothing is given; everything is earned.” And so, these big guys on the “O” line will bake twice a day with their teammates in the August heat to be prepared to earn it come December.
But as they have also learned, sometimes you just have to say your prayers. Shepherd won two postseason thrillers in a row last season on last-gasp Hail Mary passes that smacked of sportscaster Al Michael’s famous call, “I can’t believe what I just saw.”
Joey’s memory of the second “prayer answered” remains indelible. Four points behind — Kutztown State 28, Shepherd 24. Final play. Shepherd has the ball 43 yards from the end zone. “Everything turned to slow motion,” Joey says. “Tyson rolled to his right. He threw the football and we all stopped. It was like time stood still. We saw the ball descend and [Shepherd tight end] Alex Wetzel caught it over the top of three or four guys in the end zone for the touchdown.
“Then reality snapped back into place. Everyone was running around celebrating. It was surreal.”
Taking the Field Together
August 1 — Practice begins. With the team together again in Shepherdstown, the Rams have one month to prepare for the season-opener on September 1 at Southern Connecticut State. Shepherd hosts Edinboro University on September 10 for its home opener. And as the clock ticks down to the start of the season, there’s just one thing on each player’s mind: working hard to deliver an exciting season of good old, home-town college football.
Bob Kuska is a career science writer and the author of three books on basketball. He lives in Jefferson County.By Bob Kuska