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Eastern Washington University Football
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Big Sky football notebook: Commissioner delivers stern reminder to players, coaches as COVID-19 vaccinations continue to lag

UPDATED: Mon., July 26, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

With an assemblage of nearly all the conference’s head football coaches and two player leaders from each team in front of him Monday, Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill stated plainly the league’s stance on COVID-19 vaccinations for its football teams.

“You can encourage your teammates to keep a safe and healthy locker room by getting vaccinated. There’s still time to do it,” Wistrcill said during his state of the conference address. “We need to increase our rates. Our goal should be 80, 85% vaccinated by kickoff. Unfortunately we have some schools in the 25 to 30% range right now. So we have a lot of work to do there.”

Wistrcill’s remarks came on the final day of the Big Sky Football Kickoff event, held at The Davenport Grand Hotel in downtown Spokane.

“Some of our schools at 30% who can maybe get to 50% , they’re rolling the dice,” Wistrcill said later Monday. “And I just think that’s wrong. It was our time to be more vocal about it. There’s no gray area now. We’re gonna play the games. If you’re not there, then that’s a forfeit.”

The Big Sky season is scheduled to begin Aug. 28 when Southern Utah plays a non-conference game at San Jose State. Eastern Washington (Sept. 2 at UNLV) and Idaho (Sept. 3 vs. Simon Fraser) begin their seasons the next week.

“I’m given an edict from the school and/or the administration, and/or the county, and/or the state, and/or the conference, and I read and implement that edict to our student athletes,” said Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best, who also said he is vaccinated.

Eastern Washington University’s policy for the fall requires that the “full university community” be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I agree wholeheartedly with Tom (Wistrcill). It’s a personal choice. I’m not gonna get into the scientific data and all those things because those are argumentative measures. I just know what you know, is that if you don’t have a team to field, you can’t play a game; therefore, you forfeit. It’s a team game.”

Idaho coach Paul Petrino said he is vaccinated and that he is trying to give student-athletes on his team all the information to make their own decision about whether to do the same.

At the University of Idaho, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is strongly encouraged but not required.

Last spring, nine of the conference’s 13 football teams participated in a truncated spring season, but Cal Poly’s program opted out after three games. Of the nine teams, just four – including Eastern Washington and Idaho – completed the six-game Big Sky schedule.

Montana played exhibition games against Portland State and Division II Central Washington. Montana State, Northern Colorado and Sacramento State held spring practices but did not compete against another team.

“COVID hit us pretty hard, and it was stop and go, stop and go a couple times,” said Cal Poly offensive lineman Wade Willet, who along with linebacker Aaron Cooper represented the Mustangs at the Kickoff event.

“I think we absolutely need to get (to 80% vaccinations),” Willet said. “We were kinda low earlier and finally we had a team meeting (and said) hey, you know, (if) we wanna guarantee we’re able to play this fall, you’re gonna have to get vaccinated. (Cooper and I) both have it.

“My whole position group on the O-line has it, and more and more guys are getting it.”

Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere said the Eastern Washington team has talked about it, too.

“I mean obviously it’s up to the player, but I would really encourage him,” Barriere said, “because the more people who do get vaccinated, the less we have to worry about.”

Eagles picked to finish third, Vandals eighth

The Big Sky Conference also announced the results of its preseason coaches and media polls on Monday. In both, Eastern Washington received the third-most points, while Idaho slotted in at eighth.

Weber State is the general favorite in both polls, followed by Montana. Eastern Washington, Montana State and Sacramento State, in that order, round out the top five.

Barriere, Walker earn preseason MVP honors

Barriere and Idaho linebacker Tre Walker were named the conference’s preseason offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively.

Walker led the Vandals (2-4 in the spring) with 54 tackles last season.

Barriere’s nod was no surprise: He was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year last spring when the Eagles went 5-1 before losing to North Dakota State in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

“I think the body of work up to this point has proven to be pretty thorough and consistent from Eric,” Best said.

Some of the most remarkable plays Barriere makes come in practice, Best said, when the quarterback will take more chances.

“Sometimes, instead of having a coach cap on, you put a fan cap on, and you go ‘wow,’” Best said. “Anybody that makes an irregular play is to be commended; he just makes more than most.”

Big Sky releases next three schedules

With Southern Utah preparing to shift into the Western Athletic Conference next season, the Big Sky will become a 12-team football league in 2022, and the league released a trio of conference schedules that promise to be more balanced than the 13-team slates of previous years.

The goal is for each team to play every other Big Sky school at least twice – once home, once on the road – during this three-year cycle from 2022 to 2024. There is no plan to create two six-team divisions, Wistrcill said.

Eastern’s next three home schedules include games in Cheney against Montana State, Sacramento State, Portland State and Northern Colorado in 2022; Idaho, Weber State, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona in 2023; and Montana, UC Davis, Montana State and Idaho State in 2024.

In 2022, Idaho is scheduled to host Northern Colorado, Portland State, Eastern Washington and UC Davis. In 2023: Sacramento State, Montana, Montana State and Idaho State. In 2024: Northern Arizona, Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Weber State.

Eagles, Grizzlies to play on ESPNU

The Oct. 2 game at Roos Field in Cheney between Eastern Washington and Montana will be broadcast on ESPNU, Wistrcill announced Monday.

It is one of two Big Sky games scheduled to be carried by ESPNU. The other is Montana State’s game at Weber State on Oct. 15.

The broadcasts are part of a four-year deal the Big Sky Conference signed with ESPN that will make more of its men’s and women’s sports contests available for streaming on ESPN-plus.

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