EOU’s best year ever?

By Ronald Bond, The La Grande Observer, @lgoBond

W hat a year it’s been for Eastern Oregon athletics.

Consider this: Since March 1, 2016, numerous athletes and teams have made trips to nationals. Individual national championships were won.
History was made.

That’s why I’m claiming this stretch as the best year EOU’s collective teams has ever seen.

“Too bold!” You respond. “No way!” “Impossible!” “I don’t believe you!”

Allow me, then, to make my case, starting with a rundown of national achievements and team records, from the last year starting with the most recent teams. And remember, this is as a collective group — the combined successes of the teams.

• The EOU men’s and women’s basketball teams just completed their runs at the NAIA National Championships. The women posted 30 wins, second most in program history, and reached the Elite Eight for the third time ever. This after replacing six seniors the year before in what might be Anji Weissenfluh’s best coaching job ever. The men, in the first year of Isaac Williams’ second go-around as coach, won 24 games, sixth most ever, and reached the round of 16. Only one EOU team has advanced further in the tournament.

• The 2017 indoor track and field teams combined for four all-Americans: Harley McBride for the women and Matthew Kirkendall, Thomas Morrell III and Nic Maszk for the men.

• The men’s wrestling program made its return and saw an all-American in Matt Nguyen. Jessica DeHart and Makayla Grimm, meanwhile, garnered all-American status for the first-year women’s program.

• Late last fall, the volleyball team had its best season ever: a program-record 32 wins, a berth to the round of eight at the NAIA Championships and the first time winning both the Cascade Collegiate Conference regular season title and tournament title in the same season.

• Also, last fall was the football program’s best season ever: a program record 10 wins, a record eight-game winning streak, a first ever NAIA playoff berth, a run to the semifinals, less than a minute from playing in the national title game, and a program best No. 4 ranking.

• The cross country team on the men’s side that placed 13th and had an individual in Maszk earn 12th to pick up an all-American nod. Only one female runner went for EOU in Rachel Roelle, but she took 43rd and just missed all-American status.

• Last spring’s softball team overcame a rough start to win 29 games, the fourth highest total in program history, won the CCC tournament for the first time in close to two decades and made its first trip to nationals since 2000.

• The 2016 men’s outdoor track and field team took fifth in nationals, had two national champions in Ryan Rosenau and Eric England, and had five all-Americans (Rosenau, England, Kirkendall, Hakeem Belle and Pancho Saldana). Additionally, the indoor team had a national champion with England taking the triple jump, took eighth as a team and recorded two all-Americans (England and Belle). England even went on to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer.

• The 2016 women’s team was paced by Talitha Fagen’s national championship in pole vault in both indoors and outdoors, and had three athletes combine for five all-Americans between indoor and outdoor (Fagen, McBride, Roelle). The team took 23rd in indoors and 30th in outdoors.

Now, going through this list, some of the teams above have, of course, had better seasons. The softball team in 1999 took fourth at nationals. The 2009 men’s basketball team made it to the Elite Eight. The wrestling team was a perennial top-10 team in the late 1960s. These are just a few examples.

Yet EOU didn’t see the combined success it has in the last 12-plus months, especially on the national stage. Just outside of this timeframe is a women’s soccer team that in 2015 won a program best 17 games and reached nationals. Not included (only because it didn’t reach nationals) was a men’s soccer team that won 11 games in just its second season of existence.

Five of the seven team sports competed at nationals, and members from all six individual/team combination sports made a trip. What’s more, they didn’t just go — most had success.

Let’s not forget, either, post-collegiate success, with Jace Billingsley joining the NFL’s Detroit Lions and Isaac Updike running at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

This surge shows, from an athletic standpoint, that EOU is on the rise. It’s experiencing greatness on the national stage. That’s a major credit to the coaches, but also shows just how good the athletes are.

The success is also being sustained. The fact that the majority of the team sports reached nationals in the last year and have been building to that point proves that, and I believe shows that the one prize eluding the school — a team national championship — is on the horizon.

What lies ahead, obviously, remains to be seen. But for what has been an unprecedented year, I have one final thing to say to the EOU athletic programs: Well done.

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The La Grande Observer
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