BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — For nearly two full years, the Niskayuna football squad did not win a game. Between a season-ending win against Albany in 2013 and a streak-busting victory last Friday at South Glens Falls, the Silver Warriors never saw a scoreboard they liked at a game’s conclusion.
Jake Shephard, Niskayuna’s senior quarterback, had been around for that 2013 victory. He was around, too, for his team’s winless 2014 season. So, the number of days between Niskayuna wins — 682, to be exact — did not catch the Silver Warriors’ unquestioned leader by surprise.
“I was keeping track,” Shephard said at Monday’s practice. “I knew.”
Niskayuna head coach John Furey knew something, too. Furey, the Silver Warriors’ long-time coach, knew Shephard was the type of senior leader his struggling program could rally around.
“It’s everything about him,” Furey said. “You rarely get a kid who behaves like him.”
Shephard’s performance against South Glens Falls speaks for itself. The numbers — 329 yards between his passing and rushing, a part played in all three Niskayuna touchdowns in a 19-15 win, and nine tackles from the safety position — were incredible, as was the last-minute drive he led that ended with a go-ahead 5-yard touchdown pass to Jared Houghtaling on fourth-and-goal with 35 seconds to play.
For Furey, though, Shephard does as much with his words as with his right arm and legs. At practice, Shephard is the one who will get on teammates to do a drill again when insufficiently executed — and, then, congratulate them when it’s done right.
“When you have a kid that will do that, it makes your life that much easier,” Furey said. “It’s tremendous when he takes over like that.”
A high school athlete cannot do that unless he has credibility with his teammates — and Shephard has that in spades. When not on the gridiron, Shephard has been an all-league defender for Niskayuna’s state championship-winning lacrosse squad, while he’s the president for a school club that promotes healthy living for student-athletes.
“Having Jake as a captain is incredible for us,” said Brandon Munger, a senior defensive back for Niskayuna. “He’s always keeping people on task and make sure the underclassmen — and the upperclassmen — are doing their jobs right.”
Shephard made sure of that, too, during the Silver Warriors’ game-winning drive against South Glens Falls. The drive had its share of close calls — Niskayuna faced two fourth downs, succeeding on one with an accepted penalty and on the other with the game-winning touchdown pass — but Shephard kept each of the team’s huddles upbeat and focused.
“I kept telling the guys, ‘We’ve worked so many days for this, let’s go get our reward,’” Shephard said. “I had the time of my life on that drive. I was smiling and we were all going for it. We’d put so much into it.”
With the victory, Niskayuna’s players said they had a new lease on life for the 2015 season.
“Oh my god,” said Alex Singsheim, a junior wide receiver/linebacker. “It was the best feeling in the world. There’s no words to describe that feeling.”
Munger tried, anyway.
“This brought a whole new energy to our team,” he said. “After that win, this is like a whole new team.”
It is one with expectations now, too. While Niskayuna is not eligible for the postseason since the Class AA-size school is playing a Class A schedule, the Silver Warriors’ preseason goal of reaching for a .500 record or better this season has been reinvigorated. This week, Niskayuna gets a home affair with Mohonasen, a team that has all the Silver Warriors’ focus.
“It was a great win, but you’re supposed to win,” Shephard said of last week’s victory. “Now, we’re past that. We’re moving on. We got our adrenaline high from it, but now our feet are back on the ground. We’re ready to get better.”
He’ll make sure they do.