Outside of the Spokane area, the Tri-Cities has one of the largest Eastern Washington University alumni bases there is.
But the school hasn’t made a strong effort to connect with that Tri-Cities base for a while, especially when it comes to athletics.
That may be changing.
Last Thursday, EWU had a fundraising dinner at the Richland home of Rich and Celia Gentz, and then an alumni golf tournament at Horn Rapids Golf Course in Richland on Friday.
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Everyone involved is calling it a success.
“The reception (Thursday night) was as good an event as I’ve seen anywhere,” said EWU men’s basketball coach Jim Hayford.
Ken Halpin, EWU’s Associated Athletic Director, said he hopes this is the first in a long run of events in the Tri-Cities.That would be fine with EWU head football coach Beau Baldwin, who led the Eagles to a national title in 2010, as well as back-to-back Big Sky Conference championships the last two seasons.
The Eagles are expected to have another big season on the gridiron.
“What we’ve done in the last two years — go 15-1 in the Big Sky Conference and win back-to-back Big Sky championships — that was harder with a bullseye on our backs than the 2010 national title run,” Baldwins told the Herald in the Horn Rapids clubhouse.
The Eagles lost in the FCS semifinals last year, and with all-star quarterback Vernon Adams and standout receiver Cooper Kupp returning, expectations for another title run are high.
“I don’t totally base ourselves on end results,” said Baldwin. “I get it about the Big Sky championships and national championship. But if our guys go out and bust their ass for one another, do well in the classroom, and work together to be a team, that’ll make me happy.
“We have to grind it out. Expectations are high, but it’s about taking care of the process.”
Baldwin said two Tri-Citians will be going into training camp as projected starters: linebacker Miquiyah Zamora and offensive lineman Aaron Neary.
“Miquiyah is doing a good job,” said Baldwin of the former Chiawana High star. “He continues to improve in the classroom. He’s got a competitive edge. He wants to be great, and I expect great things from him.”
As for Neary, a Hanford High graduate, “Aaron is going to be a great one. He hasn’t had enough snaps because he’s had to play behind a lot of seniors. But from what he’s shown us, I believe the sky is the limit for Aaron. He can be one of the great offensive lineman at Eastern Washington University. He’s got the tools? Absolutely. But he’s got to earn it.”
Meanwhile, Hayford has the men’s basketball program on the rise, going 10-10 in the Big Sky last season (15-16 overall).“We finally have a team of maturity,” he said. “Last year we had no seniors, and we finally got to .500 in league play. The second year was really hard. We had all freshmen and sophomores. I think we’re ready to make the turn.”
He’s not the only one who thinks that.
“I think my bosses are happy because I just got a new five-year contract,” he said.
The stability in the program is there, Hayford said.
“There is just a whole lot of momentum at Eastern,” he said.
Hayford isn’t afraid to schedule anyone either. Last season, the Eagles visited eventual NCAA champ UConn. This coming season, he expects to visit Indiana and play the Washington Huskies.
And after witnessing the Tri-Cities event, Hayford was thinking about his team’s schedule again.
“To come down here and have such a great turnout was impressive,” said Hayford. “I’d like to see us play a home game here eventually.”
New EWU women’s soccer coach Chad Bodnar also took a break to play golf and mix with alums and boosters.
The Pasco High School graduate has been busy getting ready for his first season with the Eagles.
“We came in and made quite a few changes in the program,” said Bodnar. “The recruiting class is good for the fall.”
The Eagles have struggled in the win-loss department the last few years. That’s why EWU signed Bodnar, who was running both the men’s and women’s programs at Walla Walla Community College and was the director of the Three Rivers Soccer Program in the Tri-Cities.
He understands what’s ahead of him and his team.
“It takes a while to build a program,” Bodnar said. “I’m not a guy who likes to lose, and I don’t sleep well when that happens. We want to win right away, but I’m realistic at where we’re at. But I’m also competitive.”
He thinks it won’t take long to win. It starts with changing old attitudes — like losing was OK.
“It’s been a different culture,” Bodnar said. “Changing that culture has been the biggest obstacle. It’s a process. I think we can get there soon. I want to try to match what the football program is doing.”
Over 100 alumni, EWU coaches and staff attended the Thursday night dinner. Baldwin said that Hanford grad Joe Douglas and Kamiakin grad Joe Hunt have both left the program. The Eagles will open the 2014 season well before the rest of the college football world with an Aug. 23 home game against FCS rival Sam Houston State. Tri-Cities EWU alumni are planning to charter a bus to Cheney for the game. ESPN GameDay is also expected to be there. Because of the early season start, football camp will also start early, with freshmen reporting to Cheney on July 29 and veterans showing up the next day.