July 22, 2008
Preseason predictions aside, there is no doubt the Eastern Washington University football team believes it can win the Big Sky Conference title in the 2008 season.
The Eagles have been picked to finish second behind 10-time defending champion Montana by both the media and the league’s head coaches in polls released Tuesday (July 22) at the Big Sky’s Summer Kickoff in Park City, Utah.
"Our expectations are extremely high," said Eastern fullback/running back Alexis Alexander, who was Eastern’s player representative in Park City. "We discovered how good of a team we were last year and our confidence levels are up there. We plan on winning the Big Sky Conference -- we talk about that every day.
"When we’re in the weight room and running, we talk about what we are putting in all the hard work for," said the 2001 graduate of Medical Lake, Wash., High School. "We know we have the personnel to win the conference if we can stay healthy and go out and execute."
Montana earned 23 first-place votes and 361 total points by the media, with Eastern close behind with 19 first-place votes and 350 points overall. In the coaches’ poll, Montana received seven of the nine first-place votes and had 63 points. Eastern had one first-place vote and 52 points overall.
"It’s flattering and humbling in a lot of ways," said first-year head coach Beau Baldwin. "And it’s a compliment to our players for what they accomplished last year and what they are capable of this season. But the goal is to be up there at the end of the year in the middle of November. That’s obviously what really matters."
With a large group of players returning, Eastern is hoping to continue the momentum from the 2007 season when the Eagles returned to the top of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision scene with a 9-4 finish after a dismal 3-8 record the year before. Eastern advanced to the FCS Playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons and closed the year ranked eighth in the final Sports Network poll of the year. The Eagles won their last five conference games of the year to finish the league season 6-2.
Last year, Montana finished the regular season 11-0 and 8-0 in the Big Sky before losing in the first round of the NCAA Football Championships Subdivision Playoffs. The Grizzlies have won 16-straight league games, including last season’s 24-23 victory over EWU in Missoula in which the Eagles out-gained the Grizzlies 565-289. Eastern kicked a go-ahead field goal with 2:20 to play before top-ranked Montana kicked the game-winner with 26 seconds to play after converting a fourth-and-10 play.
While Eastern has 15 starters returning to its team this year, Montana has just 10.
"They’ve earned that right," added Baldwin of Montana’s No. 1 ranking. "I don’t care if they lose every player at every position, they’ve proven they are the team to beat year after year."
In 2008, the Grizzlies and Eagles meet at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash., on Oct. 11 in an early showdown between Big Sky rivals. Eastern was the last team besides Montana to win the outright Big Sky title, with that coming in 1997. Since then, the Grizzlies have won or shared the league title the past 10 seasons, including 2004 and 2005 when Eastern also won a piece of the title. The Grizzlies have advanced to the FCS Playoffs 15-straight seasons.
Last season, Eastern was picked to finish fifth in the league. In 2005, Eastern was picked to win the title in both polls, but had only one-point advantage in the media poll and received five more votes from the coaches. Both teams finished as league co-champions.