Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus and Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright stood in a hallway Monday at the DoubleTree Hotel, both gesturing as they described their experiences against FBS opposition.
Cookus recalled the time he was upended on a pass play at the University of Arizona. Wright described trying to penetrate the wall that was Washington State’s offensive line.
Standing nearby was Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller, who chimed in with an eye-opening story of his own.
“Look at this,” Gueller said as he pulled out his phone, showing off a photo of himself scrambling without a helmet against the University of Nevada. “This guy’s helmet came about three inches from my bare head.”
The Big Sky Conference’s top players know each other in name, mostly, but on Sunday and Monday in Spokane, they fraternized at the Big Sky Football Kickoff, an annual gathering of the league’s coaches, players and media members.
Student-athletes from the 13 schools teamed up to play cornhole, Wii baseball, ate meals together and visited Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, much different interactions than their conference bouts.
“I befriended a few of the other quarterbacks,” Cookus said. “This is a lot of fun, putting the names to the faces. There’s some really nice guys here.”
In years past, the event was held in Park City, Utah, but moved to Spokane in 2018 and 2019, creating an easy trip for representatives from nearby Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Portland State.
Seventeen miles from his campus, EWU defensive back Mitch Fettig was happy the Lilac City was showcased to Big Sky members.
“This is sweet,” Fettig said Monday, wearing his red EWU game jersey as he fielded questions from reporters. “Showing people the Spokane-Cheney area and getting them to our side of town and seeing how we live is an awesome experience.”
Fettig, quarterback Gage Gubrud and head coach Aaron Best represented EWU, which was picked by coaches and media Monday to win the Big Sky Conference title.
Big Sky Conference Commissioner Andrea Williams was also in attendance and helped spearhead the effort to move the kickoff in Spokane.
“Spokane is near many of our institutions and also has a great number of media members who cover Big Sky athletics,” she said. “Further, the sports commission and city have been gracious hosts and have assisted us during this transition. “
Vandals ready to renew old rivalries
After 22 years away from the Big Sky Conference, members of the University of Idaho football team are ready to reignite some old rivalries.
The Vandals could be trading in their rivalry with a school with blue turf for one with red turf.
When Idaho and EWU meet on Oct. 27 at Roos Field, it will be the first game between the two programs played in Cheney since 1994.
Idaho senior linebacker Kaden Ellis said he can’t wait for what he believes will be an exciting slate of conference games.
“Our fans are excited,” Ellis said. “They have friends and family from other schools they can talk trash to, and when our dome is packed out, it’s fun. It’s loud. It’s energetic.”
Idaho coach Paul Petrino, who was an assistant coach when the Vandals were in the Big Sky, says more fans will travel to the regional conference games. He’s looking forward to facing EWU.
“The game in Cheney will be awesome. A great atmosphere,” Petrino said. We’ll be facing one of the best – if not the best – quarterbacks in the division in Gubrud.”
“They’re our neighbors, so naturally they’re going to become our rivals,” Fettig said of Idaho “They’re going to attract a lot of fans, so the games are going to be crazy.”
Idaho running back Isaiah Saunders, who was also at the Big Sky Kickoff, said it will be nice to have fans at away games. In the all-over-the-country Sun Belt Conference, Idaho fans rarely traveled.
“It’s hard to find Idaho fans in Alabama,” joked Saunders, whose dad, Walter, was a receiver at Idaho in the early 1990s.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.