Senior Day was nice, but the celebration is just beginning for Eastern Washington defensive lineman Matt Sommer.
On Friday night, the Eagles will be back in Sommer’s home state of Oregon, playing at Portland State in what will be the biggest homecoming of his career.
“My parents’ group tickets – I think we’re at 50 right now,” said Sommer, who on Monday was wearing a West Salem High School T-shirt around the EWU football offices.
The game also is a bookend of sorts for Sommer, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and defensive end Samson Ebukam. All three Oregonians have played for the Eagles since their freshman year in 2013, and opened their careers with the landmark win at Oregon State.
Now they’re heading home, trying to help the Eagles win a third Big Sky Conference title in four years.
“It’s gone by so fast,” said Sommer, a first-team all-state selection whose college choices came down to PSU and Eastern.
“But the big-city life wasn’t for me,” said Sommer, who preferred the laid-back atmosphere in Cheney and what he describes as a perfect football atmosphere. “It’s a great group, and everyone’s got your back,” Sommer said.
Good thing, because two months after playing in a high school all-star game, Sommer found himself in the middle of the action at Oregon State, 40 minutes from home.
“Not getting recruited by them, then getting thrown into the fire right away, that was an awesome feeling to beat those guys,” Sommer said of the 49-46 win, Eastern’s first over a Pac-12 school.
Since then, Sommer’s fortunes have matched Eastern’s. They went on to win Big Sky titles in 2013 and 2014 as Sommer played in 28 of 29 games. He was honorable mention All-Big Sky as a sophomore and made the all-academic team both years.
During the Big Sky championship seasons in 2013 and 2014, the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder has been a run-stopping force at nose tackle.
He played both ways in high school, but Sommer has thrived on defense. “I love to fight off double-teams and hit people – you get to be the hammer and not the nail,” he said.
“He’s been an anchor up front and he’s had an impact every year,” coach Beau Baldwin said of Sommer. “He’s a class act and does things right in the classroom and treats people right.”
Then came the 6-5 letdown of 2015, a season that left Eastern out of playoffs and left most of the Eagles to do some soul-searching.
Acknowledging a chip on the shoulder for most Eastern defensive players – the byproduct of EWU’s high-scoring offense – Sommer said that in 2013 and 2014, “We knew were going to figure it out, and we did.”
“But last year was a real wakeup call,” said Sommer, who took little solace in his third-team all-conference selection. The turning point came in the winter, when Baldwin challenged the players – on offense and defense – to hold each other accountable and play to a higher standard.
“It’s been a different team since then,” Sommer said.
Unfortunately, Sommer wasn’t the same player because of an MCL injury suffered midway through fall camp. It was thought to be minor, but rehabbing couldn’t eliminate the scar tissue, and Sommer missed the first three games of the season.
“Going all the way back to high school, I’d never missed a game,” said Sommer, who had expected to play in the opener at Washington State.
Finally back in action in the conference opener at Northern Arizona, he “felt weird” getting back in the action.
“It was almost like freshman year again – I was actually nervous,” Sommer said. “I was happy to get that first series over and move on.”
Certainly the Eagles have done that, going 7-0 in the Big Sky with a chance to tie North Dakota for the title if they beat PSU. Sommer has helped the cause with 10 tackles, making 50 for his career.
The Eagles’ defense is gaining confidence by the week. It’s been over a month since they’ve given up more than three touchdowns. A 35-16 win over Montana last month as satisfying enough, but it could have been even better.
“After the game, the thought wasn’t that we held them to 16, but that we couldn’t have held them to seven,” said Sommer, who’s now played in 47 games.
And now for the bookend game, his 48th. There’s sure be an addendum when the Eagles compete in the FCS playoffs, but Sommer’s gaze is fixed on Portland.
“This is going to be real special,” Sommer said.
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