In a season defined by dramatic highs and lows, Eastern Washington University’s resilient football team experienced an unprecedented level of elation Sunday.
“Words can’t really describe how we’re all feeling right now,” senior linebacker Makai Borden said shortly after he and his Eagles teammates learned they were one of eight schools to receive at-large berths in the 2009 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs that start next weekend.
“It’s just amazing, especially when you consider how we went from such a low to such a high.”
The low Borden mentioned was spawned last winter when the NCAA slapped EWU with a one-year postseason ban after uncovering a series of minor infractions that had occurred under the watch of former head coach Paul Wulff.
That ban, as a result of an appeal filed by the university, was lifted late last month, giving deeper root to the Eagles’ dream of playing on into late November and beyond. And they capitalized on the emotional lift provided by the NCAA’s decision, closing the regular season with four straight wins and finishing in a second-place tie with Weber State in the Big Sky Conference standings.
That impressive stretch run apparently helped convince the NCAA’s selection committee that Eastern (8-3 overall, 5-2 in the Big Sky) was worthy of a berth in the 16-team FCS playoff field. So the Eagles will travel to Nagodoches, Texas, to take on Southland Conference co-champion Stephen F. Austin (9-2, 6-1) in Saturday’s opening round.
Kickoff has tentatively been set for noon, and Eastern coach Beau Baldwin is excited about seeing his team get a chance to play in the postseason after surviving all of the early-season uncertainties and some late-season adversity brought on by season-ending injuries to two key players, senior wide receiver Aaron Boyce and senior linebacker Kyle Wilkins.
“It’s definitely a fitting reward for this group,” Baldwin said, “especially for our seniors, because this is their last chance, and they fought and scrapped for a long time without knowing if they’d even get one last opportunity to go to the playoffs.”
Eastern will be one of three Big Sky teams competing in the postseason. Unbeaten conference champion Montana (11-0) was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s playoffs and will host South Dakota State (8-3) in a first-round game in Missoula on Saturday.
Weber State (7-4), the only four-loss team in the field, will travel to Williamsburg, Va., for a first-round matchup against William & Mary (9-2) on Saturday.
“I think that shows that we play in one of the toughest conferences in the country,” Baldwin added, “and the committee sees that. Plus, we’ve proven as a conference, that when we do get at-large berths, we’ve traditionally been able to have some success.”
Eastern last made the playoffs in 2007, when it went on the road and blasted third-ranked McNeese State 44-15 in the opening round before losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State, 38-35, in Boone, N.C.