The Last Hurrah For Nittany Lion Seniors

Jeremy Kapinos

Kapinos, Shaw among those who will be playing their final Beaver Stadium home game Saturday. The Nittany Lion seniors have seen their share of highs and lows, and are looking to leave the program on a positive note.

Some people might find it strange to look out at Penn State's sideline and see an assistant coach standing where Joe Paterno is supposed to be.

Tim Shaw isn't one of those people.

Shaw never expected to see Paterno on the sideline by the time he was ready to wrap up his college football career.

“I kind of figured he'd be gone by now,” the senior defensive end said earlier this week. “It's amazing he's still around.”

Let the record show that by “around” Shaw means “still in charge of the team.” When he was being recruited, Shaw said Paterno talked about staying on at Penn State for a few more years but didn't offer any particulars. That was fine with him. Much as he wanted to play for the legendary coach, he wasn't spooked by the prospect of a coaching change.

“I was looking at it like it might be good to have somebody totally new take over,” Shaw said. “I just thought that would be a good thing if it happened when I was a sophomore or a junior. But you never know how things are going to go.”

Closing in on his 80th birthday next month, Paterno is more senior than any of the 23 players who will be honored before Saturday's game, Shaw being among the most prominent. But while the veteran coach is expected to return to Beaver Stadium for the first time since his leg was broken in a sideline collision at Wisconsin two weeks ago, Senior Day will belong, as it always does, to Penn State's departing players. For many of them, it promises to be a bittersweet occasion.

“It's obviously going to be emotional,” punter Jeremy Kapinos said. “I've been here such a long time, and next year I won't have that security of being back on the field. But I'm ready to move on. I'm looking forward to it.”

A four-year starter at punter, Kapinos came to Penn State with hopes of performing on a big stage and making an impression on potential NFL employers. He said he has accomplished his goals.

“I've been on four really good football teams,” he said. “The first two years, the record may not have indicated it, but those teams were good. Last year, that was one of the biggest stages you can be on in terms of football, with the Orange Bowl and national TV and the whole bit. I've punted a whole heck of a lot and gotten a lot of exposure. So I couldn't be happier with what I've done here in four and a half years.”

The path Shaw took to Saturday's game hasn't been quite so straightforward. He moved from tailback to linebacker early in his career, and this year went from linebacker to defensive end. He described the move to end as “tough,” and said jokingly that going up against 300-pound tackles repeatedly is “one of the dumbest things you can do.”

“It's like trying to wrestle a bear,” he said. “I feel like these guys swallow me up. Sometimes I feel like I'm running my head into a brick wall. But sometimes I feel like I can out-athletic them.”

Shaw said he hoped that his experience at defensive end would show his versatility when he tries to gain a foothold in the NFL next year. He thought that his take-one-for-the-team attitude might work in his favor as well. “I felt like it was a big growing step for me,” he concluded.

This year's seniors are about to disembark from one of the wildest rides any class has ever had at Penn State. The Lions won only seven games in 2003 and 2004 before bouncing back with consecutive winning seasons, including last year's memorable 11-1 finish.

The current season didn't go as players had hoped, with Penn State losing all four of its games against nationally ranked opponents. And with the season nearly over, it's uncertain whether the Lions will get another shot at a ranked foe. Their opponent on Saturday is 4-7 and their postseason destination won't be known for a few days.

But no matter whom they play in their final game as Penn Staters, the seniors believe they can have a happy ending.

“Eight wins, potentially nine wins - that's a pretty good season for us,” Kapinos said. “A lot of us, the seniors, know what it was like to go 4-7, 3-9. We know 8-4 isn't 11-1, but it's a good season for us. … We're looking to continue our good play throughout the bowl game and leave our mark on the program.”

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