July 17, 2006
As expected, the Eastern Washington University football team has been picked to finish anywhere from second to fifth as the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches and media polls were released Monday (July 17) at the Big Sky Conference Summer Kickoff in Park City, Utah.
The Eagles, who shared Big Sky titles the last two years and advanced to the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs both seasons, were picked second by the coaches and fifth by the media. A year ago, Eastern was picked to win the title it eventually shared with Montana.
The uncertainty, however, is created by the fact the Eagles lost Payton Award-winning quarterback Erik Meyer, four receivers including record-breaking Eric Kimble, a pair of cornerbacks and middle linebacker Joey Cwik, who was the Big Sky's Defensive Player of the Year. But with 41 letter winners back -- including 10 who earned All-Big Sky Conference recognition a year ago -- the Eagles expect to contend for the title once again in 2006.
"I think this will be a year where we will surprise a lot of teams," said Eagle lineman Harrison Nikolao, who was Eastern's player representative at the Summer Kickoff. "Everyone has lost a lot of players throughout the conference. People look at us and see that we lost Erik Meyer, Eric Kimble and the core of our wide receivers. Teams are going to look at us as being suspect in certain things and weak in certain areas, which we are. But we're going to be stronger as a team this year than in the past three years."
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Nikolao will be a key figure in that strength. He was a second team All-Big Sky defensive lineman last year, but has moved to an offensive guard position heading into his senior season. The 2002 graduate of Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash., has a team-high 24 games of starting experience as an Eagle, including a stint as a two-way player in 2004.
"We thrive on competing and that is not going to change," Nikolao added. "We are only going to improve. That's what Eastern Football is all about."
In the coaches poll, Montana was picked to win the title and received eight of the nine first-place votes. Montana State was picked third and plays the Eagles in the league opener for both teams on Sept. 23 in Bozeman, Mont. Portland State was picked fourth followed by Idaho State, Weber State, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and league newcomer Northern Colorado.
The media poll also had Montana on top, with the Grizzlies receiving 28 of 32 first-place votes. Montana, which plays at Eastern on Oct. 7, was followed by Montana State, Weber State, Portland State, Idaho State, Eastern, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Northern Colorado.
Eastern opens the season Aug. 31 at Oregon State, then plays at West Virginia on Sept. 9. Eastern has its home opener against Central Washington on Sept. 16.
Trio of Eagles on Preseason All-Big Sky team . . .Eastern Washington senior tight end Tim Calhoun, junior offensive guard Matt Alfred and junior safety Bryan Jarrett have been selected to the preseason All-Big Sky Conference team as selected by members of the media.
All three players received All-Big Sky recognition a year ago when Calhoun was selected to the second team and Alfred and Jarrett were both first team selections. Alfred also earned All-America honors.
Calhoun is a 2002 graduate from Zillah, Wash., High School, and has caught 46 passes for 591 yards and five touchdowns in his career. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a true freshman before missing the 2003 and 2004 seasons because of injuries.
Alfred has started 22 career games as a guard and tackle, and is a 2003 graduate of Gig Harbor, Wash., High School. In each of the last two years, Eastern has ranked fourth in NCAA Division I-AA in offense with averages of nearly 500 yards per game. His younger brother Kenny is an offensive lineman at Washington State University.
Jarrett transferred to Eastern after playing one season at Western Washington University, and is a 2003 graduate of Puyallup, Wash., High School. He had 59 tackles, two passes broken up and an interception as an eight-game starter in his first season as an Eagle in 2005.
Those players helped lead the Eagles to a second-straight league title and NCAA Division I-AA Playoff berth in 2005.