They arrived in Cheney in the fall of 2006, some 30 naïve freshmen, harboring a good measure of uncertainty, hope and a desire to leave a lasting impression on Eastern Washington University’s football program.
Almost five years later, a mere 14 members of that once-ample recruiting class remain.
But those who survived can proudly lay claim to having been a part of the most successful four-year run in the history of Eastern football – a run that will culminate Friday, when the No. 1-ranked Eagles (12-2) square off against Delaware (12-2) in the NCAA Division I Championship game at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
“Some might argue that we’ve had, top to bottom, more talented senior classes,” Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin said. “But this one has been as good at leading by example and showing our younger players how to practice, play, watch film and attack the offseason as any I’ve been around.
“In terms of where they stack up in number of All-Americans and all-league players, they might not be as high as some years. But, in my opinion, they’re the perfect mix of guys who understand how to lead.”
Aside from two-time consensus All-American linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award favorite J.C. Sherritt, there isn’t much, as far as marquee names are concerned, to recommend about the senior class of 2010.
“We really haven’t been a class with a lot of star power, except for J.C. and (defensive tackle) Tyler Jolley,” senior tight end Matt Martin said, “especially following last year’s class with Matt Nichols, Nate Overbay and those kinds of guys.
“We’re a class of mainly unsung heroes, who keep battling and do a lot of the dirty work. And we’re fine with that.”
Of the seniors expected to accompany the team to Texas, only seven – Sherritt, Jolley, Martin, offensive guard Nikolai Myers, punter Cameron Zuber and cornerbacks Jesse Hoffmann and Dante Calcote – are expected to start. Five others – safety Will Edge, defensive lineman Levi Reynolds, wideout Ashton Gant and offensive linemen Brice Leahy and Clint Moquist – are listed as backups.
And the other two – tight end Jason Harris and safety Ethen Robinson – will miss the game because of season-ending injuries suffered early in the year.
The litany of hurt this year’s seniors suffered during their careers borders on unthinkable.
Leahy, who lettered as a redshirt freshman and became a full-time starter the following year, missed the 2009 season after suffering a gruesome offseason knee injury in a motorbike accident, and has played only sparingly this year. Harris, who broke his clavicle and missed the last eight games last season, had his senior year wiped out by a concussion suffered in the Eagles’ season-opening loss to Nevada back on Sept. 2.
Hoffman, the only senior who played as a true freshman in 2006, was forced to redshirt the following year after suffering an elbow injury. Edge dislocated an ankle and broke his fibula in the spring of 2009, but recovered in time to play in nine games last season. Yet his only start of 2010 came on Senior Day, back on Nov. 20, when the Eagles thumped Idaho State 34-7.
Robinson suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the first game of 2007, lettered as sophomore, but then missed both his junior (shoulder) and senior (knee) seasons because of injuries. Gant, who missed four games last season because of ankle and hamstring problems, has missed the last three playoff games because of a knee injury, and remains doubtful for Friday’s title game.
Still, this group of star-crossed seniors has persevered, helping lead the Eagles to 35 wins, three playoff berths, a Big Sky Conference co-championship and the school’s first No. 1 national ranking.
“They’ve been a great senior class,” junior safety Matt Johnson said. “There aren’t a lot of standouts, but every single one of those guys are great leaders. They’re a bunch of hard-nosed guys who are a lot of fun to be around.
“They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, but I think that’s what has made this whole group so tough – which is the one word I would use to describe them.”
Sherritt – who has been one of the most durable seniors, having played in 44 games during his career – considers himself and his classmates “a bunch of grinders, who know how to work hard.
“It’s a battle trying to make it here for five years, as you can tell by our numbers,” Sherritt added. “But we’ve managed to stick it out. It’s been tough to watch the injuries, especially to Brice and Jason, who are just great football players. But I think they’re the best examples of what this class is all about.
“Instead of getting hurt and saying, ‘That’s it,’ they decided to stick around, stay dedicated to the program and help the younger guys get better.”
Even Baldwin marvels at the way his seniors have responded to adversity, whether it involves injuries, late-game deficits or the cloud of uncertainty that hung over the team throughout most of the 2009 season because of NCAA postseason sanctions that were eventually lifted.
“It just shows the character of this senior class,” Baldwin said, “and it resonates down through the entire team. Sure, there are some guys whose individual roles, as seniors, have not been as great as they would have like.
“But they’ve done an incredible job of putting the team first. And that mean a lot more to me than any stats on some sheet of paper.
“Without them, we’re not playing for a national championship.”