For Juniata High School product Eric Eberle, it's just another college football game. Ditto for Tony Shearer, a former all-star at Indian Valley.
Both local standouts know they could be in for an emotional finish.
Eberle and Shearer will suit up on the gridiron today as their teams kick off the opening round of the NCAA Division III playoffs - a-win-or-go-home, 32-team tournament. The two seniors realize this could be their last hurrah.
Defensive tackle Tony Shearer is a member of the Lebanon Valley College football team that is the first in school history to earn an NCAA?Division III?playoff berth.
"It's really been enjoyable the whole time I've been here," says Eberle, a punter and placekicker at Washington & Jefferson College, located 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. "I'm having fun doing what I love to do."
Eberle has played a major role in W&J's success over the past four seasons, handling both the punting and place-kicking chores. He averaged 35.9 yards per punt, which earned him first-team all-Presidents' Athletic Conference honors. Eberle also converted four of seven field-goal attempts this season.
W&J, which went 8-2 overall and captured the PAC title, faces a tough challenge in its playoff opener - top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Mount Union. The Purple Raiders are 10-0 and claimed an automatic berth by winning their 22nd-straight Ohio Athletic Conference crown.
Mount Union and W&J come in ranked 1-2 all-time in Division III in playoff appearances. The Purple Raiders have punched their playoff ticket 25 times, with W&J second at 23 appearances. However, Mount Union owns 11 titles and has been to the last eight Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowls - Division III's championship game. The Presidents lost the Stagg Bowl in 1992 and 1994. The teams last played in a 2009 first round game at Mount Union which the Raiders won 55-0.
Eberle and his teammates aren't intimidated by Mount Union's storied past. W&J coach Mike Sirianni served on Mount Union's staff and has coordinated preseason scrimmages between the two schools.
"We've already been there to Alliance, Ohio this year," Eberle says of scrimmaging the Purple Raiders on their home turf. "We've got 28 seniors here who are hoping not to play their last game (today). We're not going to give up easily."
Eberle has hung tough this season. After a stellar junior season which earned him second-team Division III All-America honors, Eberle has battled a back injury that forced him to give up the place-kicking chores for part of the season.
The consummate team player, Eberle stepped aside and focused solely on punting.
"I was kind of relieved," he explains. "I was really in a slump and not really very accurate. With punting and kickoffs, you don't really have to have the precision you need with kicking field goals. I could just really blast the ball. My kickoffs have been consistent all year. It was still disheartening with the injury pushing me out of my position."
After a missed point-after attempt by his replacement, however, Eberle returned to handling all of the Presidents' kicking chores.
He credits cornerbacks and kicking game coach Jonathan Widich with much of his success.
"He notices the little details - things I don't think about," Eberle says. "He's fixed a few things that have helped me to perform even better."
During his junior year - his first season with Widich - Eberle connected on 11 of 14 field goals and averaged 37.0 yards per punt to earn the All-America honors as well as first-team all-PAC and third-team D3football.com All-South Region accolades.
"Eric has been a key weapon for us," Sirianni says. "He has a strong leg and gets his kickoffs high and deep almost every time. He is the reason why we are first in the league in kickoff coverage. His punting has been excellent and he's helped us win a lot of field position battles."
For his career, Eberle has connected on 19 of 27 field goals and averaged 35.9 yards on punts. Not too shabby for a former soccer player who didn't hit the gridiron until ninth grade.
"I just started kicking the football and wanted to play in college when I realized I was pretty good at it," he recalls.
This season marks the first time that Shearer and Lebanon Valley College have made the NCAA field - ever. The Flying Dutchmen were ranked until losing their season finale against Albright.
Now, they're looking to rebound against No. 10 Wittenberg, champions of the North Coast Athletic Conference.
Shearer has been a stalwart on special teams and defensively at nose tackle.
"It's pretty exciting to get another chance to play," Shearer says of the playoff game. "It's definitely special to be part of this. For our seniors and upperclassmen, this is a very special moment."
Regardless of the outcome this afternoon, Shearer will graduate as a champion. LVC finished the regular season at 8-2 and captured a share of its first Middle Atlantic Conference title since 1969. The Dutchmen needed a little help to get to the postseason after falling to Albright. However, Delaware Valley upset Widener and LVC won a head-to-head tiebreaker over Lycoming to earn the conference's automatic berth.
"Coming into the season, we just wanted to go off last year," Shearer says of the Dutchmen's 6-4 campaign in 2012. "We did pretty well and we thought we could build off that."
Shearer has experienced success in each of his four seasons at LVC. This year's senior class has already won 28 games, which ranks among the most successful in school history.
While he doesn't have the stellar numbers of a strong-armed quarterback or menacing linebacker, the game has meant just as much to Shearer, who credits his dad, Tom - his former coach at Indian Valley and a standout defensive lineman at Millersville University - for helping him achieve his dream of playing at the college level.
"It's nice to have stats, but my dad taught me it's really important to work hard - playing football and being a student," Shearer says. "I've had to work at keeping my grades up as much as I've worked hard during practice."
The college gridiron experience has been more than he ever could have imagined.
"I just wanted to be part of a team somewhere," he explains. "I didn't know that I'd love it so much. My teammates have good chemistry, so everyone gets along. (At a small campus) everyone knows everyone. It's just been a lot of fun."
Shearer has also gained the respect and admiration of his coaches and teammates.
"Tony is a true success story," LVC head coach Jim Monos says, "Not only has he improved as a football player, but he has shown a tremendous commitment and loyalty to our program for four years. As far as his contribution to the team, he didn't play as much as other guys did, but he never complained and continued to work hard.
"Not only is he respected by the coaching staff, but he also has the respect of his peers which I think is the ultimate compliment. We couldn't have asked him to do more, and it's been my privilege to coach him."
Shearer also feels fortunate to have played with captain and all-conference tackle Kevin Smith, one of the most decorated defensive players in LVC history.
"Just that leadership and experience he brings," Shearer says of his teammate from Nazareth, Pa. "His overall ability to play has been great to watch and learn from."
Shearer has appeared in six games this season, registering three tackles. He also appeared in six games in 2012 and made two tackles. He played in four games as a sophomore, with one tackle, and two games as a freshman.
At Indian Valley, Shearer earned second-team Mountain League honors at tackle. He also wrestled and competed in track and field.
"You don't know when your last game will be, so you really have to appreciate the time you have on the field," Shearer adds.
If both W&J and LVC advance, the two schools would meet in the second round.