The burden of expectations was never this light.
The Eastern Washington University football team opened fall practice Wednesday afternoon as the third-ranked team in the land, a largely veteran group that knows there’s still room for improvement.
An 11-3 season and a berth in the national semifinals will do that for you. Call it building on success. The Eagles have been there, done better than that.
As he trailed his players onto the grass practice fields behind Reese Court, Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin got reacquainted with both the local sports media and the preseason hype that’s become the norm in Cheney.
Being picked third by the Football Championship Subdivision coaches is partly a reflection of the “reloading, not rebuilding” mode the Eagles have forged as Baldwin enters his sixth season in charge of the Eastern program.
“I guess my reaction is it’s something we’ve built,” Baldwin said, adding that it’s preferable to being the out-of-nowhere team that surprises one year and recedes the next.
If an unranked team is hoping to sneak up on the field, Baldwin said, “You probably weren’t that good before. I think this (the ranking) reflects the direction you’ve gone with the program.”
In Eastern’s case, it’s been steadily uphill, building on both the highs and the lows.
“Winning a national championship will be a goal every year, and it was even before we won one,” Baldwin said.
That came in 2010, which led to a preseason No. 1 ranking the following year. A month later, the Eagles were 0-4, battered, bandaged, yet unbowed. Baldwin takes a lot of pride in that squad’s response to adversity: The Eagles won six of their last seven games to finish with a winning record.
Last year, the Eagles were driven to climb back up the mountain, and almost made it to the peak – which actually is a flat space of land in Frisco, Texas, site of the national championship game.
As much as Baldwin wanted to return there, the Eagles’ 45-42 semifinal loss to Sam Houston State provided just the right incentive. “You get to respond to a successful year,” Baldwin said.
“But you also get to respond to the taste in your mouth of a loss.”
The response mechanism kicked in Wednesday afternoon. Players shrugged off the 95-degree heat during an energetic practice session; indeed, quarterback Vernon Adams couldn’t wait to get onto the field even as reporters asked questions about his new group of receivers.
“I was so pumped last night I couldn’t sleep,” said Adams, a redshirt sophomore who stands at the top of the depth chart.
“I just love being out here with my family,” said Adams, looking at his teammates.
The preseason media poll, sponsored by The Sports Network, will be released on Tuesday. … Baldwin stressed that the poll means nothing until the season begins, in Eastern’s case with a daunting Aug. 31 date at Oregon State, ranked 25th in the FBS preseason poll. … The Eagles will resume practice the next three days at 9 a.m., with Saturday’s session the first in full pads. After a day off Sunday, the team will hold the first of six two-a-days on Monday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The first scrimmage is scheduled for Aug. 17 at about 9:45 a.m. at Roos Field.