There was nothing glamorous about being a member of the Central Washington University football team back in early September.
At the time Ellensburg, where Central is located, was blanketed by smoke from the wildfires that afflicted Washington and British Columbia this summer. The air quality was so poor the Wildcats were unable to practice on campus, instead being forced to make the two-and-a-half hour drive across the Cascade Mountains each day just to find a location where they could breathe without risking their health.
But as the NCAA Division II Football Championship conducts its round of 16 Saturday, Central finds itself smack in the middle of the glitz, and the Wildcats have several Snohomish County natives to thank for their current position in the spotlight.
Undefeated Central, the top seed in Super Region 4, hosts the Texas A&M-Commerce Lions at noon Saturday at Tomlinson Stadium in Ellensburg, and a handful of players from Snohomish County high schools will be among those leading the Wildcats onto the field.
“It’s been amazing,” said senior receiver Justin Peterson, a graduate of Lakewood High School and an honorable mention all-Great Northwest Athletic Conference selection. “We had big goals from the beginning of the season and we’ve accomplished all we set out to so far and more. We’re all excited for the playoffs now.”
Four locals are starters for the Wildcats, who finished a perfect 11-0 during the regular season. In addition to Peterson, senior linebacker Sean Elledge, a second-team all-Great Northwest Athletic Conference selection, is from Glacier Peak, while senior receiver Christian Gasca and sophomore linebacker Tevin Gray graduated from Lake Stevens.
In addition, senior Kyle O’Donnell from Stanwood started Central’s first seven games on the offensive line before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
They’ve helped Central to its best season since 2009, when the Wildcats finished 12-1 and also went undefeated during the regular season. That team reached the national quarterfinals before falling 21-20 to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State. This team is hoping to exceed that team’s accomplishments.
“I’ve played on teams that won championships, but there’s something different about this team,” Elledge said. “I don’t know how to describe it, it just has that ‘It’ factor. I love our team and think we can do something big.”
Elledge is the most decorated of the quartet, as this is the second straight year in which he was named second-team all-GNAC. This season starting at weakside linebacker in Central’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme, Elledge ranks second on the team in tackles with 55 (25 solo, 30 assists), including 12 for a loss, and he’s fourth on the teams in sacks with five.
“I think I’ve had a good season,” Elledge said. “We’re really dominant up front, which gives me opportunities to make plays. My numbers are down a little from last year, but it was still a good season. The defense has been flying around — they say it’s the best defense since 2009 — and it ranks high in the nation. It’s been fun to be out there flying around with everyone.”
Lining up next to Elledge on defense is Gray. Though listed as a linebacker, Gray functions more as Central’s nickel defensive back in the 4-2-5. He’s fifth on the team in tackles with 41 (26 solo, 15 assists) to go along with 3.5 sacks and one interception.
“I had a bit of a slow start as I was getting used to the speed of the game,” said Gray, who unlike the other three locals is starting for the first time in his collegiate career. “I played a little last year coming in on third downs. But the last several games I feel like I’ve been playing well and helping out the rest of the team.”
Meanwhile, Peterson and Gasca have emerged as Central’s top two receiving threats, as they’re tied for the team lead in receiving yards at 520. Gasca, who lines up in the slot in Central’s three-receiver attack, gained those yards on 37 catches and scored four touchdowns,. Peterson, who’s out wide, got his yards on 29 catches and scored three TDs.
“It’s been a good season,” Gasca said. “I didn’t have the strongest numbers, but that doesn’t matter, I made plays when I needed to. It’s hard to be selfish when the team is 11-0.”
Added Peterson: “I think I’ve played well so far. We’re a well-rounded offense, there’s no one guy who gets all the touches, which is really good from a team standpoint. I think I’ve contributed to the team better than I ever have before.”
This has been by far Central’s best season since any of the four arrived in Ellensburg. The Wildcats were 7-4, 5-5 and 7-3 the previous three seasons, and Central hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2009. But buoyed by the addition of junior quarterback Reilly Hennessey, a transfer from Eastern Washington University, the Wildcats were able to take that next step.
“I knew we’d be good, I knew we had a special group of guys, this team is older and it’s a really tight-knit group,” Elledge said. “I knew all the hard work we put in the last five years, and then bringing in Reilly we knew we’d have a good season. But I was not expecting 11-0.”
Central has also been able to pull out the close ones, winning three games that were decided by a single score. The most significant of those came in the Wildcats’ third game of the season, when they traveled to play defending GNAC champion Azusa Pacific. Central won that hard-fought battle 17-16 on Gavin Todd’s 42-yard field goal with 1 second remaining.
And the players hearken back to those days traveling across the mountains to avoid the smoke as one of the reasons why the Wildcats won the competitive ones.
“It was not ideal, but it brought us closer together,” Gasca recalled about the long bus trips west. “We had a few close calls during the season, but we never wavered. When we faced adversity we were ready.”
Now they’re ready to make a run at a national title. Teams from the GNAC haven’t traditionally been threats to win the national championship, but the Wildcats — and particularly those from Snohomish County — believe they have the ability to change that.
“Coach [Ian Shoemaker’s] motto is that he thinks we can win a national championship with Washington state players,” Elledge said. “It’s cool playing with guys I played against in high school and share the same type of success here.