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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Attitude, as much as ability, defines WSU linebacker Sagote

Washington State linebacker Justin Sagote, center, transitions between drills with teammates on Thursday in Albuquerque. (Tyler Tjomsland)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Early in Justin Sagote’s career as a football player at Washington State, coach Mike Leach ended practice by showing the team five clips of players who had given extraordinary effort. Sagote, an undersized linebacker who had transferred in from the College of San Mateo, showed up in two of them.

The next day it was the same drill, two of the five effort clips featured the newcomer.

Sagote didn’t always stand out so much. At just less than 6 feet tall, Sagote was too small to be seen by four-year schools coming out of high school. Linebackers are typically teams’ leading tacklers and are expected to provide a physical presence in the middle that one doesn’t anticipate from a player with the size of a wide receiver.

“He’s not your prototypical size. On a lucky day he’s 6-foot,” said Tim Tulloch, Sagote’s defensive coordinator in junior college. “He’s strong now. He’s put together at 220-plus pounds, but he plays big. I knew that if a school gave him an opportunity they’d find out that he’s an impact guy.”

Now a senior, he’s made a big impact for the Cougars, who won two out of their final three games to earn a spot in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl, the school’s first bowl game since 2003. Sagote racked up 38 tackles over those final three games, leading the team each time.

As a solid tackler who has a nose for the football, coaches like Sagote’s abilities on the football field. But it’s his everyday attitude they love.

Tulloch likes to tell the story of how their first meeting during the recruitment process. How the high school kid took his family members’ plates and filled them with the food provided by the coaches before ever sitting down to eat.

Leach went the junior-college route to replace linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, who were dismissed for violating team rules. In Sagote, he found a player who could not only fill the void left on the field by their departure, but could contribute to the locker room attitude adjustment the coach was looking for.

“I think it was pretty instrumental when he got here because he was always a high-effort guy and then he ends up being a starter and makes a lot of plays,” Leach said. “I think he ignited the other guys. Anybody can work harder than they think they can and Sagote proved it to a bunch of them, and I think it elevated their play. “

Coaches at San Mateo and WSU all maintain that Sagote’s passion for football far outstrips whatever he may be lacking in height or frame. Linebackers coach Ken Wilson even says that he has “never been around a guy who enjoys the game of football as much as Justin.”

It’s a new love for the Santa Clara native, who didn’t grow up playing the sport.

“Never did I think that football would be something he would be interested in,” said Sagote’s mother, Rachel. “He tried out for wrestling in middle school and he put a lot of effort into it because it was something that he loved to do. He went on to high school and he played football during his freshman year and from then on he knew that football would take priority over wrestling.”

Sagote finally got to go through the major college recruiting process after earning All-NorCal Conference honors as a sophomore at San Mateo. But even that wasn’t easy.

To have a chance to play in a major conference like the Pac-12, Sagote had to reject the sure chance to play Division I football at a school he liked. It wasn’t an easy thing to do for a player who had spent the past two seasons working toward earning that scholarship offer.

“He visited San Diego State. He had a good vibe about it. But he wanted to go and visit the other schools as well,” Rachel said. “San Diego State gave him an ultimatum that his scholarship would be tossed if he visited Purdue. So he wrestled with that one and ultimately made the decision to move ahead and visit.”

After the Purdue trip, he visited Pullman, and ended up a Cougar. Saturday he’ll play in the biggest game of his collegiate career, and WSU’s coaches are confident that their smallest starting linebacker will again have an outsized game performance.