“Start fast, finish strong,” said the motto on last year’s Eastern Washington football poster, the one that featured coach Beau Baldwin and six of his top seniors.
None of them had started their Eastern careers faster than Shaq Hill, a big-play receiver and kick returner since he was a redshirt freshman. In the poster, Hill stands next to Baldwin, seemingly poised for a big final year.
In other words, a chance to finish strong.
Hill never got the chance.
The season opener at Oregon started off as “a lot of fun” for Hill, who scored the Eagles’ first touchdown and was reunited with his close friend, former Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.
Then came the worst injury of Hill’s career, a meniscus tear in his right leg that cost him the entire season, all of spring ball and most of the summer. Two surgeries, pain and self-doubt were his closest companions.
“Finish strong?” Hopefully that will happen in 2016.
“It’s huge to have Shaq back,” Baldwin said as the Eagles opened fall camp.
Flashes of greatness came in his redshirt freshman year in 2012, when he was a freshman all-American thanks to a 26.4-yard kickoff return average that included a 99-yard score against North Dakota and three other returns of better than 40 yards. Another apparent score that year – for 93 yards in playoff win over Illinois State – was negated when Hill dropped the ball a yard from the end zone.
A year later he was Eastern’s third-leading receiver, including TD receptions of 68 and 76 yards against Montana State and an 86-yarder at Montana. All three rank in the top 50 in school history.
“He’s always been someone who’s been dynamic, and he has a lot of versatility, almost like a great running back,” Baldwin said.
In 2014, Hill helped the Eagles win a third straight Big Sky title after catching 52 balls for 706 yards and five touchdowns. He also averaged 27.1 yards per return.
Hill did all that while battling nagging injuries, including a hamstring that kept him out of the opener at Washington.
But nothing like what happened last September in Eugene.
“I knew it before they (the trainers) told me,” Hill said.
“It was a pretty significant tear,” said Brian Norton, the head athletic trainer at Eastern. Norton agreed with the decision to repair the injury rather than replacing the meniscus.
“However, that takes longer, and it takes some patience to overcome that – I know it was hard on Shaq,” Norton said.
The reality of missing an entire year was jarring. “I had a reality check – there’s nothing you can really do,” said Hill, who spent the season rehabbing and being his teammates’ biggest fan.
And the road games? Hill spent those in Cheney, “watching on TV like everyone else,” he said.
Hill reinjured the knee during winter conditioning, a setback that kept him out until late summer. The worst thing: inactivity put unwanted pounds on his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame.
Now he’s back, fully recovered. Says Hill: “I’m ready to help my team.”
And finish strong.
Notes: Friday’s morning practice was the Eagles’ first in full pads, and Baldwin appreciated the increase in intensity. “There was a different energy with pads, but I think it was more than just the pads. They came out with a lot of energy and a lot of pep,” Baldwin said. “The challenge is when you get more practices under your belt and whether you can sustain it and keep moving.” … For the third straight practice, quarterback Gage Gubrud got the lion’s share of the snaps in 11-on-11 drills, partly because he has less game experience than rivals Reilly Hennessey and Jordan West. “Gage is moving at a pace that is fantastic, but he still has a long way to go as a quarterback and a player,” Baldwin said. … The Eagles have their first two-a-day practice Saturday and get Sunday off.
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