It was a sublime night for Eastern Washington football and wide receiver Nic Sblendorio.
As his teammates celebrated a 48-41 comeback win at Montana, Sblendorio soaked in the scene and said, “I’m incredibly thrilled. This is pretty special.”
It was beyond that: Sblendorio had 18 catches – three shy of the school record –189 yards and a touchdown.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Jay Dumas, the Eagles’ receivers coach.
When it was over, no one wanted to leave – least of all Sblendorio, who’d just caught half a season’s worth of balls in his last game in Missoula.
Who could blame him? Going into this season, no EWU player faced more pressure than Sblendorio.
Gone were most of the offensive coaches. So were Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill, along with their winning legacy, their leadership and all those receiving yards – 4,058 last year alone.
How could anyone top that? Who would want to try?
But when that baton was passed, the first hand to reach for it belonged to Sblendorio, the Eagles’ top returning wideout and a guy who was making highlight-reel catches as a freshman back in 2014.
Now he’s a senior. He also has a beard – who else would you pick as a captain?
“I knew I was going to be the old guy, I was ready to do the things that this (Eastern football) culture has instilled in me,” Sblendorio said last week. “I just wanted to do the same.”
All went well through spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp. Then came the opener at Texas Tech.
Quarterback Gage Gubrud’s first pass was a short dump over the middle, straight to Sblendorio, who fumbled.
The Eastern offense never recovered, that afternoon or on Sept. 9 against North Dakota State. After two games – both lopsided losses – the passing game looked disconnected and a few fickle fans were looking for a scapegoat. The wideouts were an easy target.
That wasn’t fair, but Sblendorio didn’t complain.
“When you put in that much work, you don’t just put your head down and feel sorry for yourself,” said Sblendorio. “We all have the confidence in our ability to respond.”
Sblendorio can back up that confidence. With two state 4A titles at Skyline High School and a trio of Big Sky championships, he has more championship hardware than anyone on the Eagles roster.
His biggest moment as a redshirt freshman in 2014 came against none other than Montana, a one-handed end-zone grab on a short, low, throw from Vernon Adams Jr.
“That was the most memorable play, for sure,” Sblendorio said of a play that ranked No. 2 on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day.
Over the next three seasons, Sblendorio also made the everyday plays that win games and championships.
He did it twice in 2015, including a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jordan West to force overtime against Cal Poly. The Eagles won that game as well as a 55-50 thriller over Montana State that saw Sblendorio catch three balls for 120 yards.
Last year he caught 33 passes for 401 yards and three scores, including a title-clinching 46-yarder in the regular-season finale at Portland State.
However, Sblendorio doesn’t have a rear-view mirror, no matter how good or bad the view.
“Win or lose, you have to learn from every single game,” Sblendorio said.
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