It is nearly impossible to narrow down today’s FCS playoff game between Eastern Washington and Youngstown State into one word or phrase. But, there are a few that come to mind after the YSU Penguins upset the EWU Eagles, 40-38 on a last minute play.
As the sun began to set just after kickoff, the temperature began to drop. 12 degrees at kickoff was cold, but with the sun setting the weather became bitterly cold.
Fans could be seen adding layer upon layer of clothing as the made their way from their cars to the stadium. It’s winter in the Pacific Northwest. We know that and we come prepared for it.
I, myself, had four shirts, a coat, three layers of clothing on my legs and feet, three on my head and still, in single digit weather and snowy as the game went on, the bitterness was felt up and down my body.
And, it stung.
The Inferno (Roos Field) was quiet. Except for one annoying fan on the opposite with a high-pitched scream, the Eastern Washington Eagle crowd was quiet.
Loud for most of the night – partly to support their team and partly to stay warm – they were trying to make sense of what they just saw. Victory snatched. Title hopes dashed. A season ending just short of the goal again.
Perhaps they were praying, hoping that somehow, some way the replay review would turn in their favor.
It couldn’t end like this, could it? It can’t end like this for Cooper Kupp…
Game in and game out, Cooper Kupp was amazing to watch on the field. When you think opponents have him locked down, he makes a play that he shouldn’t make. Two or three guys try to drag him down and yet, it’s Kupp that does the dragging.
Kupp is the guy you hate to play against because even if you do everything fundamentally right, he still makes you look silly.
He isn’t flashy. He won’t get in a defender’s face and brag about a play. No, Kupp just plays football.
After every game, I’ve watched Kupp embrace teammates and opponents alike. But tonight, in his final game in an Eastern Washington uniform, it seemed a bit more than usual.
Penguin player after Penguin player sought out Kupp. They’d embrace and talk briefly – congratulatory words of a different sort from each, most likely. It was clear that these Youngstown State players had tremendous respect for Kupp.
While this went on, others were waiting.
His teammates, perhaps 20-30 of them waited for Kupp in the middle of the field. They waited because he was their leader. Their leader in this one final act — of thankfulness and prayer.
Joy and sorrow.
That high-pitched screaming fan was ecstatic. Their team is heading to Frisco, TX to play in the FCS National Championship game on January 7 against James Madison.
This fan was joined by super excited fans 1, 2 and 3 who ran onto the field when they probably shouldn’t have.
If it was my team, I might have done the same.
YSU players were smiling and laughing – completely full of joy at their amazing win. Some were running around Jim Valvano-style looking for someone to hug.
Shoulders slumped. Helmets off, helmets on. Hands on hips while others squatted down trying to make sense of it all.
Others shook hands and found a place of comfort – in their families. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles all consoling young men who gave everything they had on that field. They were trying to talk them through the gut-punch they just experienced.
It was unexpected. Not so much the loss itself, but rather the way they lost. How do you prepare for that kind of ending? How do you make sense of something that was within your grasp and then snatched away at the last second?
Hugs with smiles on one side. Hugs with tears on the other.
For the Eastern Washington Eagles and their fans, tonight will be a bitter pill to swallow.
The @YoungstownStFB miracle TD catch behind the defender's back doesn't get any less awesome no matter how many times you watch it pic.twitter.com/UMYAWAXrbg
— College Football by SB Nation 🏈 (@SBNationCFB) December 18, 2016
There will be no trip to Frisco this year. It is another season without an FCS title. But, it was far from a failure.
This Eastern Washington Eagle team was special. Finishing 12-2 overall (including a win over their neighbors to the south – Washington State Cougars), undefeated in the Big Sky Conference with record-setting players on both sides of the ball, this team had an amazing season even without a title.
Then again, maybe it’s not so much bitter, but it’s a bittersweet ending for this team.
All season long, when push came to shove, they responded. When you thought they were down, they proved you wrong. “It’s such an amazing group,” said Head Coach Beau Baldwin. “(They) gave us so many memories. It was a resilient bunch the entire year and they played the toughest schedule in school history.”
“I was proud of them before we even kicked off this football game,” Baldwin added. “I’m proud of the way they handled so many situations coming into this season and how they approached and attacked the off-season. One play doesn’t define the effort, the heart, the camaraderie and the culture that this team carried all the way through the season. That’s how I feel.”
There will be a bit of a bitter feeling for EWU to be so close to Frisco. But, it is also bittersweet. “The toughest thing is knowing we don’t get three more weeks together,” said Coach Baldwin. “If it doesn’t hurt that you don’t have that time together, then it probably wasn’t as meaningful as you really wanted it to be.”
This team like others before it and after will always have a bon. That bond is built not so much during the season but more so in the off-season.
The blood, sweat and tears of weights and conditioning. The countless rehabbing of injuries. The jockeying for practice time with the 1’s. And, the long conversations about football, school and life.
Those times are mostly over now. Though the bond remains, the times together do not.
As for me, I don’t know where I will be next September when football rolls around again. Will I cover another promising Eastern Washington football season? It’s hard to say.
What I can say is that it has been a privilege to see these young men bond and grow. I’ve seen the seniors go from wide-eyed, nervous freshmen to confident, passionate young men in a few short years. Where they go from here is up to them.
I hope that their time on the playing field and in the classroom at Eastern Washington will be a launching pad to be valuable contributing members of society. I hope that they make a positive impact in their road ahead.
No, I don’t cheer for any team I cover. But, I do root for the young men in life. I’m a mom -that’s how I’m wired. I can’t help but root for life success for these young men.
Let’s let that be the final word for the night.