Ian Shoemaker unveiled his bold goal for Central Washington University during his interview for the head football coach job in 2014.
“I said, ‘Our belief system is going to be around the idea that we can win a national championship and we can do that with Washington high school kids,” said Shoemaker, who grew up in Graham and attended Orting High School.
Four years later, Shoemaker is on track to make that aspiration come true. Loaded with local talent, Central is 8-0, ranked No. 8 in NCAA Division II, leads the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and is in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Wildcats play defending GNAC champions Azusa Pacific University at 1 p.m. in Ellensburg in a game that will be streamed by ESPN3.
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As buzz builds around the Wildcats, Shoemaker says it reminds him of the 1991-96 stretch when Washington schools dominated the NAIA Division II ranks. Pacific Lutheran University lost the title game in ‘91 and ‘94 and won the title in ‘93. Central split the title with Findlay (Ohio) in ‘95. And in ‘96, the final year for the classification, Western Washington University finished second.
All of the teams were loaded with players who honed their craft at Washington high schools, much like this year’s Wildcats’ team.
“Over the last four years, we signed more Washington high school kids to scholarships than Washington, Washington State and Eastern Washington combined,” Shoemaker said.
The Wildcats, who don’t offer full-ride scholarships like the large schools, have 97 players (including non-scholarship players) from Washington on their roster. Eastern has 76, UW has 40 and WSU 33. Central’s Evergreen roster includes 46 players from South Sound high schools.
Shoemaker, who played football and baseball at Iowa’s Grinnell College, made an immediate impact at Central. The team was 19-12 in his first three seasons. The team averaged 307.5 yards of total offense per game in his first three seasons.
“Personally, I’ve been on the offensive side for all my college coaching,” Shoemaker said. “... But you have to make sure we’re great on both sides of the ball.”
This season, not only are the Wildcats excelling offensively (457.3 yards and 39.38 points per game), but their defense is dominating. The Wildcats’ defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in three of its past four games.
Last weekend, the Wildcats held North Alabama, the defending national runner-up, to 178 yards in a 17-10 win.
The defense is led by players like senior linebacker Kevin Haynes of Battle Ground, who has a team-best 68 tackles. Wilson High grad Billy Greer is a sophomore defensive end who leads the Wildcats with seven sacks. Tyler Hasty, son of NFL pro bowl defensive back James Hasty, is an Oregon State University transfer who leads the conference with six interceptions.
On offense, Eastern Washington University transfer quarterback Reilly Hennessey is making a strong case for all-conference honors. The junior from Camas has completed 148 of 224 passes 1,671 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Shoemaker said he felt comfortable bringing in transfers as his program solidified and because Hennessey and Hasty were Washington players with whom he was quite familiar. “We knew we were strong enough to bring in kids like that and they would fit and bend to the will of the kids who have been here for three years,” Shoemaker said.
Christian Cummings of Tumwater led the ground game with 594 yards in his first six games before he suffered an injury. Senior Austin Pernell of Kentlake has helped fill the void. He has 466 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior Christian Gasca leads the Wildcats with 431 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Senior Nate Rouda of Ballard also has four touchdown catches. Tight end Kyle Self, a Peninsula High grad, leads the Wildcats with seven touchdown catches.
Central debuted at No. 2 (Behind Minnesota’s Winona State) in the Super Region Four rankings on Monday. They must finish in the top seven to make the playoffs. Not even a GNAC championship assures CWU of a spot in the Division II playoffs. In the GNAC, teams must play each other twice. Central is in its second swing through the league and Saturday’s game is a rematch of their toughest matchup of the season. On Sept. 16, they needed a last-second field goal by Gavin Todd (A rare out-of-stater. He’s from California.) to post a 17-16 win at Azusa Pacific. Azusa Pacific was the only GNAC team to beat Central last season.
“So we have a one-and-done mentality right now,” Shoemaker said. “We feel like we are in a playoff operation right now.”
Central Washington University has earned a No. 8 national ranking with a roster loaded with players from Washington high schools. Nearly half of those players from the South Sound.
South Sound players
Central Washington (Division II)
Eastern Washington (FCS)
Washington State (FBS)