Reilly Hennessey respected the decision, but he didn’t like it.
Before the strong-armed Central Washington quarterback guided the Wildcats to a 11-0 regular season last fall, he spent two years competing for the same job at Eastern Washington.
He earned it twice in 2015 but never kept the reins. A preferred walk-on from the same recruiting class, Gage Gubrud, edged out Hennessey the following season, validating former head coach Beau Baldwin’s decision when he was later named the Big Sky Conference’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
“Gage’s athleticism is what they wanted to lean on,” recalled Hennessey, who appeared in 11 games at EWU, throwing for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. “And it obviously worked out. It was a decision I understood, but wasn’t happy with.”
He’s found happiness and success in Ellensburg, though, and returns to Cheney on Saturday when Central Washington visits EWU at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field.
Both teams are ranked in the top 10 of their respective levels, EWU No. 8 in FCS and CWU at No. 9 in NCAA Division II.
Hennessey, who passed for 2,551 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2017 and rushed for 572 yards and five scores, is looking forward to the reunion.
“It’s going to be fun to look across the field and see all those familiar faces,” Hennessey said. “I had a lot of good memories over there and still have friends there.”
Gubrud is one of them.
“I still talk to Reilly. No smack talk, though” said Gubrud, who lead the Eagles’ offense for the third-straight year. “I knew when he left for Central that he was going to have a ton of success there. But when it comes to Saturday, we’re going to be ready for him.”
When Gubrud beat out Hennessy in 2016 fall camp, Hennessey dwarfed Gubrud’s game experience. His collegiate debut in 2015 included throwing for 145 yards and two touchdowns at Oregon.
Hennessey had the stronger arm and serviceable legs, but it was Gubrud’s all-around skill set that put him over the top.
Gubrud said he wasn’t surprised when he won the starting job, but remembered it being an arduous task.
“It definitely was a challenge in front of me,” Gubrud said. “I remember having conversations with my parents. I’d tell them that Reilly is good, but they’d say, ‘Yeah, well you’re good too.’ It was a good competition. It just so happened that I edged him out and got the spot. We competed and it happened to go my way.”
Hennessey relieved a struggling Gubrud against Northern Iowa in 2016, going 23 for 31 for 244 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-30 win at Roos Field. He played sparingly the rest of the season.
Second-year head coach Aaron Best said he’s happy Hennessey has been able to display his skills at Central Washington.
“It wasn’t one of those things where it was a bad relationship before he left,” Best said. “It’s just one of those situations where he wasn’t going to play as much as he’d hoped in the latter part of his career.
“I’ll wish him well in all of his games, except Saturday.”
EWU and CWU will meet for the first time in eight years. The last two contests were donnybrooks, as the Eagles edged the Wildcats 35-33 in 2010 – the year EWU won a national title – and lost to CWU 21-14 in 2006.
Hennesey believes CWU, which returns the almost its entire offensive line, backfield and secondary, has the horses to compete with EWU, which returns 17 starters.
“We want to show a team like EWU that we can play some good football,” Hennessey said. “I’d compare this game to when EWU went to Washington State in 2016. The first strings can play with each other, but depth is the difference.”
EWU running back Sam McPherson believes his former quarterback will be ready.
“He’s going to come out firing,” McPherson said. “He lives for these types of games.”
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