Ian Shoemaker knew he had something special long before everybody else.
In August, as the football season approached, the then-unranked Central Washington University Wildcats had a big problem. The air in Ellensburg was thick with smoke because of wildfires in the surrounding areas.
Not only would practicing in such conditions be miserable, it was unhealthy.
So, the Wildcats boarded buses and headed west to practice: Once at the University of Puget Sound, twice in Bothell and three times in Sammamish.
“That’s a five-hour operation without the practice,” said Shoemaker, in his fourth season as CWU’s coach. “... You get off the bus, practice, find a way to get them fed, then get them back to this side and go to meetings and still do all the game-planning work we normally do. And it’s not the best on their bodies sitting on a bus for that long.”
The poor air quality meant moving CWU’s first home game to Bothell, meaning their first four games of the season were on the road. “I think we bonded more than we needed to at that point,” Shoemaker said, laughing.
Conditions seemed perfect for excuses to weasel their way into the program and undermine a promising season.
“The beauty of it is our guys never blinked once,” Shoemaker said. “There was no complaining. It was, ‘Hey, this is what it is. This is our reality. We don’t control it. Let’s go out and have a great effort and have a great attitude.’
“That’s when I knew we had a special group, in terms of guys who were not going to let the little things get in the way of our progress as a team.”
That’s when I knew we had a special group, in terms of guys who were not going to let the little things get in the way of our progress as a team.
Ian Shoemaker, CWU coach, on the way his team responded to be displaced by late-summer wildfires
Shoemaker was right. The team upset Texas A&M-Kingsville on the road despite trailing 10-0 in the season opener. The win was impressive enough for them to sneak into the coaches’ poll at No. 23. In the third week, they upset the defending Great Northwest Athletic Conference champs, Azusa Pacific, on a last-second field goal.
By the time they finally played in Ellensburg, Central was ranked No. 13 and established as the favorite to win the GNAC.
Saturday afternoon, they’re back on the road for the biggest game CWU has played in eight years. No. 7 Central (10-0, 7-0 GNAC) plays at No. 17 Humboldt State (9-1, 6-1) for the GNAC title in a game that will be broadcast on ESPN3. A win could land Central a first-round bye and a home game in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Such are the perks of finishing the season ranked No. 1 in one of the four Super Regions. Central is No. 2 in Super Region Four in the most recent rankings behind Minnesota State. The American Football Coaches Association’s poll ranks Minnesota State No. 1 and Midwestern State No. 4 in the nation, while Central is No. 7.
Like Central, both teams close the regular season with road games against nationally-ranked opponents. Minnesota State plays at No. 13 Sioux Falls. Midwestern State, third in the regional rankings, plays at No. 21 Eastern New Mexico.
Shoemaker hasn’t been shy about saying that the ultimate goal for Central is to win a national championship with a roster loaded with players from Washington high schools. That’s precisely the team he has this season. The Wildcats have 97 players from Washington and nearly half of them are from the South Sound area.
The No. 1-ranked team each of the four NCAA Division II Super Regions get a first-round bye in the playoffs and home game in the playoffs. CWU is ranked No. 1 in Super Region Four.
Saturday, the Wildcats were in British Columbia where they beat Simon Fraser, 51-0. It was their third consecutive shutout of the Clan dating back to last season, when Central started its 12-game winning streak. Simon Fraser has lost 32 consecutive games dating back to 2014.
Defense has a been a key for the Wildcats this season. They’ve shutout three opponents, and haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown in four of their past six games.
The showdown with Humboldt will be the second this season. On Oct. 7, Central surged to a 41-7 lead before the defense finally allowed a Humboldt touchdown in the third quarter. CWU won 55-27.
Central, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 despite winning the conference title in 2012, has won three games in a row against Humboldt, the 2015 GNAC champs.