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1997 Eagles reached for the stars, but fell to Youngstown State in semifinals

Harry Leons has waited almost two decades for this moment: Eastern Washington against Youngstown State, with a spot in the national title game on the line – again.

The memories came flooding back this week for the former Eastern Washington quarterback, who led the Eagles to that same lofty perch in 1997 after one of the best seasons in school history.

However, that season ended in a 25-14 semifinal loss to the Penguins at Albi Stadium in Spokane. Youngstown went on to win a fourth title, and three years later, YSU coach Tressel went on to fame at Ohio State.

Leons embarked on to a successful business career, but this week couldn’t resist a look back at the might-have-beens.

A win this week would help.

“If they beat YSU this will feel so much better,” Leons said. “I wanted to take Cheney and Spokane to that championship game – that really hurt. This will feel so much better.”

Good feelings reigned in Cheney in 1997. That year’s EWU team raised the bar for the entire program, winning more games (12) than any team to that time, outscoring opponents 481-245 and breaking a six-game losing streak against Montana.

That confidence-booster carried the Eagles and coach Mike Kramer to only their second Big Sky Conference title. They already had the talent.

Leons, a former receiver who didn’t play quarterback until 1996, was the Big Sky Offensive MVP. The Eagles also had wide receiver Jeff Ogden, who went on to play several year in the NFL; running back Rex Prescott and offensive tackle Jim Buzzard. The defense was led by lineman Chris Scott, the Big Sky defensive MVP and linebacker Derek Stray.

Greatness was a three-year work in progress, said Kramer, who saw the Eagles go 3-8 in 1995 and 6-5 the next year.

“I knew we’d be something special because in 1995 we played a lot of freshmen and sophomores in ‘95,” said Kramer, now the coach at Idaho State.

“We also were a very mentally tough team,” Kramer said.

The big test came against Montana. A play-action pass to Ogden worked to perfection in a game the Eagles would win 40-35.

“That catapulted us,” Leons said. “It was going to be pretty hard to stop us after that.”

The Eagles won their last four regular-season games, then beat Northwestern State 40-10 and Western Kentucky 38-21 to set up the game against Youngstown.

On a 29-degree day at Albi Stadium, the Penguins got a huge break early in the game. Trailing 7-0 in the third quarter, Eastern was deep in YSU territory when Leons was tackled.

Leons seemed to be on his back and down after being sacked near the Penguins’ 25-yard line. But no whistle sounded and YSU lineman Mike Stanec grabbed the ball and ran untouched to the end zone.

Aaron Best, the Eagles’ offensive line coach, was on the field at the time. “If we had instant replay back then, it would have been fun to see if the knee had been down,” Best said.

Down 17-0, the Eagles cut the deficit to three, but could get no closer.

After graduation, the 15 EWU seniors embarked on their careers. They were reunited in 2012, when the team was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

“It was humbling and it was awesome,” Leons said at the time. “Probably the best part is knowing that you left some kind of mark at Eastern.”