Ring ring, ring ring, ring ring. “Hey, it’s coach Lutz! How are you doing today?”
What follows might be a little bit of small talk, maybe a bit of motivation. But above all else, just keeping in touch, sticking together even when it is not physically possible. There are nearly 100 young men on the Slippery Rock football team, and head coach Shawn Lutz loves them all.
Lutz said it’s been countless chatting hours on the phone or video calling through Zoom to keep in touch with his team since live meetings still are not allowed. Even though roughly 75% of the team remains reasonably close to Slippery Rock, all workouts are voluntary and strictly socially distanced.
It is an unfortunate twist in a cruel year of absolute uncertainty — being unable to compete on the gridiron this semester and foster those bonds between teammates that have been strengthened by back-to-back national playoff runs.
Despite being unable to be together as a team, the mantra remains the same: be relentless or be forgotten.
“Our motto right now is we’re going to have that relentless attitude,” Lutz said through a phone call Friday. “We’re going to control what we can control and be positive. It’s a stressful time, something got taken away from us, everybody, but all we can do is really do a good job of being there for our guys with anxiety, depression and really our main emphasis is staying with them, contacting them all the time.”
While Slippery Rock is unable to defend its Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title in 2020, and cherished rivalry games against Indiana (Pa.) and California (Pa.) will not be played, there are a couple of opponents to tackle this semester: complacency and hard work in and out of the classroom.
After an excellent spring semester in which Rock football produced 22 PSAC Scholar-Athletes, Lutz said the biggest focus this semester will be keeping the nose to the grindstone in the classroom.
“It’s a different type of learning, most of our guys are online, not much face-to-face right now,” Lutz said. “We’re just going to have a lot of Zoom, individual meetings and team meetings.”
So, aside from hitting the books and working for a new program record for team GPA, Rock football will be tasked with working out on its own this year. Well, maybe not entirely alone. Voluntary workouts start on Monday after all.
“Some strength and conditioning to get those guys going in the right direction that way,” Lutz said. “We’re just going to control what we can control. We’re going to be ready to defend that title like you’ve never seen before.”
It might not be a team-led practice, but it allows for the familiarity of training in the same location as prior seasons while also allowing teammates to workout together — in small numbers while maintaining social distancing.
According to Lutz, the foundation is set. Now Rock football needs to not let the negativity around the situation — not having a season mainly — affect its hunger and drive for excellence.
“You can be disappointed and upset, but don’t let COVID beat you,” Lutz said. “Don’t let the circumstances right now bring you down. Everybody faces adversity in their lives and we’re facing something big, but let’s build on this and make us even stronger.”
Lutz said the time to control the controllable is now. Rock football understands why the season is not happening, with other major conferences dropping, the writing has been on the wall for some time.
The ones may appear to be on the student-athletes to get better during this time away from the game, but Lutz stressed that this a time where the coaches, himself included, can use this time to better themselves.
“Let the opponent be down in the dumps,” Lutz said. “Maybe not train as hard. [We can still win] right now, you can win in the classroom, you can win with your mentality and you can win getting bigger, faster, stronger on your own.”
While Lutz and Rock football did not have much say on whether athletics took place in the fall, none at all, in fact, that has not changed Lutz’s hopes for this semester. As is the case for most Division II football players, football is but a continuation of a childhood dream. It is not the platform that many would hope, however, playing Division II football usually leads to a degree.
“As much as they love that game of football, it’s going to end someday,” Lutz said. “But your degree, your graduation, your career path does not.”
Regardless of how this semester, in terms of student-athletes continuing on the field, Lutz hopes and will give the opportunity to all his current players to return to the team. He knows that each student-athlete has a different path, a different set of circumstances — whether that’s finances, jobs, etc. — but he hopes to welcome his current team back.
“If they do all come back, I won’t have much of a freshman recruiting class, but that’s okay,” Lutz laughed. “If Jermaine Wynn, Henry Litwin, Chad Kuhn and some of those guys come back, definitely we’ll take them over incoming freshmen.”
Continuing a trend of positivity, Lutz emphasized how building the team culture has provided success and continuity. According to Lutz, that culture is built so strongly because of the trust that has been fostered. None of that would be possible without constant positivity.
That is not being stopped by COVID. If games against IUP, Kutztown and Notre Dame (Oh.) last season are any indication, Slippery Rock is going to fight until the end.
“It will eventually be over,” Lutz said. “Don’t let it be a completely bad memory where it got the best out of you. Get the best out of it, learn from this, learn how to be mentally tough and disciplined, make it a positive instead of a negative.”