Eagles Opening Season With Optimism

Lynni Talady/CSC Sports Info

With 20 seniors on the roster, several of whom will be playing their fifth season, there’s much optimism and few questions marks concerning the Chadron State College football team that will open its schedule by playing the Western Colorado Mountaineers in Gunnison on Saturday. Kickoff will be at 1 p.m.
Head Coach Jay Long said he’s excited about the season. He thinks this year’s team has lots of talent to go with the experience and will be well prepared after practicing all of last fall and finding a way to play four games while many teams played none, and then having 39 practices during the spring, including controlled scrimmages against Northern Colorado and Wayne State.

“I’m extremely excited about this season,” Head Coach Jay Long said. “It’s going to be a unique season. A lot of teams haven’t played for two years. Thankfully, that doesn’t include us. We think we’re going to have a really good team. “We’ll have to prove that one game at a time.”

Long added that while many teams didn’t have any games last fall because of the COVID 19 pandemic, most of them continued to practice and may have made some changes that will surprise their opponents this fall.

“Most teams have practiced at least 100 times since they played a game,” the coach noted. “Every team should be knowledgeable and fired up about finally have a chance to play. I know our guys are ready to get after it against somebody besides their teammates.”

Long also noted that the Eagles aren’t the only team with a large number of seniors. He says many players who were slated to play their final season last fall feel they were cheated and have returned for another year of competition.

The Mountaineers appear to be something of an exception. There are only nine seniors on the roster, but eight of them have an R in front of Sr., meaning they have been redshirted and this is at least their fifth year in college.

Playing the Western Mountaineers has had an interesting sidelight in recent years. That’s because their three leading coaches have Chadron State connections.

Head Coach Jas Bains was on the Eagles’ staff five years, three of them as the special teams coordinator, before moving to Gunnison as an assistant. He’s now in his 11th year as the head mentor.

Todd Auer spent 23 years at CSC, including the last 17 as the defensive coordinator when the Eagles often led the RMAC in numerous defensive categories. This is his sixth season in that position with the Mountaineers. CSC fans still remember Auer’s competitive nature. His wife is Chadron native Kim Olson.

And, Joe McLain, one of the Eagles’ all-time great players, signed on as the Western quarterback coach and passing game coordinator in 2019. While quarterbacking the Eagles 2005-08, McLain threw

for 8,011 yards and 70 touchdowns. Equally impressively, Chadron State won 38 of the 42 games that he started during his career.

Long said he has great respect for the trio and knows the Eagles will be going up against a well-coached team on Saturday.

While several of the RMAC teams did not attempt to schedule games last fall, Western tried but after Covid continued to take its toll and forced numerous cancellations, the Mountaineers managed to play just one game. It resulted in a 64-7 loss to Stephen F. Austin, a Division I program in Texas.

The Chadron State-Western rivalry dates back to the late 1930s, when they played twice. There

wasn’t much scoring in that era. The Mountaineers won the 1938 game 7-0 while the next year neither team scored, resulting in a 0-0 tie.

The teams have met every year except 2020 since the Eagles joined the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in 1990. CSC won that game 43-38 while the following year Western prevailed 51-49.

The Eagles lead the all-time series 23-12-1 and have won 18 of the 20 contests this century. The first exception was in 2016, when Western’s star running back, Austin Ekeler, carried 37 times for 283 yards and clinched the 24-15 decision with a 69-yard scoring jaunt midway in the fourth quarter.

For Western State, Ekeler was what Danny Woodhead had been to the Eagles a decade earlier. He’s now carrying the ball for the Los Angeles Chargers and is in the midst of a four-year $24.5 million contract.

The Mountaineers also edged the Eagles in 2019, the last time the teams met in Gunnison. Western had a 27-12 halftime lead and scored only once in the second half, but it was on a 47-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Connor Desch to wide receiver Malcom Wesley with 2:35 to play and a 33-32 win.

Both Desch, a 6-3, 190-pound junior, and Wesley, a 5-11, 175-pound sophomore, are still on the Western roster. Another Mountaineer, Will Lydle, a 6-1, 270-pound defensive lineman, was a first-team all-RMAC choice at the end of the 2019 season.

Chadron State’s lineup is stocked with proven players.

Quarterback Dalton Holst is the starting quarterback for the fifth season, counting last year’s shortened slate. He’s completed 698 passes for 9,115 yards and 76 touchdowns. He needs to throw for 1,100 yards this fall to match Jonn McLain’s CSC career passing yards record.

Long, who played center for the Eagles and snapped the ball to CSC Hall of Famers Trevor Long and Matt Strand and was Jonn McLain’s coach, says Holst has all the qualities those quarterbacks possessed. In addition, Long said the entire team respects Holst’s leadership skills and demeanor.

Holst will be protected by the same five starters in the offensive line who were there last fall. Among them is 6-5, 315-pound senior left tackle Justine Calderon, a first-team All-RMAC choice in 2019.

The receiving corps is led by Cole Thurness, who also is playing his fifth year and recently earned Academic All-American honors. He’s caught 139 passes for 1,911 yards and 19 touchdowns and also is an exceptional kick returner. He’s twice been voted the Eagles’ MVP by his teammates.

At running back, the Eagles will feature Elijah Myles, who carried 200 times for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019.

The Eagles’ most improvement from 2019 is expected to be on defense. While CSC ranked second in total offense in the RMAC that season at 457.7 yards a game, they were ninth in total defense after giving up 414.7 yards per game.

Since then, some transfers have been added and the unit has more experienced depth, an important commodity in an era of “hurry-up” offenses that try to run nearly 100 plays.

“We’ll rotate a lot of linemen and backs on defense,” Coach Long noted. “We’ve also got some young linebackers who will be able to give the three seniors we have there a break.”

Defensive leaders include linebacker Travis Wilson, who led the RMAC in tackles with 124 in 2019, cornerback Jeremiah Gutierrez, who was credited with 12 pass breakups in ’19 and lineman Brendan Hopkins, another fifth-year player who is 6-3, 300 pounds and helps give the defensive front more size than ever before.

Overall, the Eagles return all 15 of their leading tacklers from last fall. A newcomer a year ago, cornerback Bobby Peele, picked off three passes in the four games after intercepting 12 in 19 games at College of the Sequoias in California the previous two years.

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