FRISCO, Texas – Beau Baldwin, when pressed about the future of Eastern Washington University’s football program following Friday night’s 20-19 win over Delaware in the NCAA Division I Championship at Pizza Hut Park, deferred.
Rather than launch into some glowing assessment of his team’s chances of repeating its unlikely run to EWU’s first D-I title in any sport, the Eagles’ coach kept his comments subdued.
“I’m just going to enjoy this right now, and these guys should, too.” Baldwin said nodding toward the three players sitting next to him in the postgame interview room. “I’m not going to give you the coach’s answer like I’m ready for next year, but don’t get me wrong.
And well he should be.
Of the 22 Eastern players who started against Delaware, just six were seniors – which means 16 will be back next year, along with junior running back sensation Taiwan Jones, who watched the Eagles’ last two playoff games from the sidelines with a broken bone in his foot.
On offense, only tight end Matt Martin and offensive lineman Nikolai Myer will be lost to graduation. The defensive losses will be cornerbacks Jesse Hoffman and Dante Calcote, nose tackle Tyler Jolley and two-time All American and 2010 Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt.
“We do lose some incredible seniors, but we’re always excited about a new challenge,” Baldwin said. “We were excited last year, and we lost some amazing seniors, too.”
Looking back, it seems remarkable that Eastern was able to mount its run to a national title after saying goodbye to the likes of Matt Nichols, a four-year starter at quarterback, tight end Nathan Overbay, wide receivers Tony Davis and Aaron Boyce, and defensive standouts Makai Borden, Kevin Hatch, Lonnie Hosley, Evan Cook and Jacob Kragt.
But Baldwin and his staff found ways to plug those graduation holes, and most of the players they used believe a repeat in 2011 is a realistic goal.
“Just looking at the players we have coming back, it’s scary. It is,” said Bo Levi Mitchell, who slipped comfortably into Nichols’ vacated quarterback position and provided the Eagles with another capable, confidant trigger man, throwing for 302 yards and three second-half touchdowns in Friday night’s victory.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun next year and I plan on being back here next year.”
Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, who caught nine of Mitchell’s passes for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns – including the winner with just less than 3 minutes left – echoed his quarterback’s positive sentiments.
“I don’t know, we’re a greedy bunch,” he said.” I hope we can build off this and just keep growing together.”
Kaufman said that the seniors on this year’s team will be missed – especially Sherritt.
“We’re losing the best football player I’ve ever played with – No. 4,” Kaufman said of Sherritt, who led all tacklers in Friday’s title game with 18. “He’s my favorite football player on this team. He’s my favorite football player to watch.
“But we’ve got a really strong team coming back. We’ve got the same receiving corps coming back, we’ve got Taiwan, we’ve got the same O-line, we’ve got Mario Brown,” a true freshman, who was a solid fill-in for Jones in the three games he missed. “I’ve got three more years of this, and we expect to be here again next year.”
“Sure, we plan on being right back here next year,” junior linebacker Zach Johnson said. “We’re going to celebrate this (title) a little bit and then get back to work. That’s what it takes if we’re going to get back.”
Sherritt, despite having played his last game as an Eagle, wasn’t about to throw any cold water onto the conversation.
“I’m excited for where the program is headed,” he said. “You’ve got to have leaders and you’ve got to have followers – guys that will get in line and do the right thing. And we have them.
“Those young guys have been great all year. I’ve never seen such a mature team, all the way to the freshman. The sky’s the limit for this team coming up, and I’m excited to see where they go. I just wish I could play a little bit longer with them.”