He may not have had the biggest impact on the field – that honor will undoubtably go to his quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell – but Bellevue native Rusty Haehl was able to play a big part in Eastern Washington University’s Football Championship Subdivision national championship win over Delaware.
Haehl, a redshirt sophomore linebacker for the Eagles, was one of the players who snuck his way up behind Beau Baldwin, raised a cooler high and doused the Eastern head coach in the traditional gatorade bath as the final seconds ticked off the clock in EWU’s improbable comeback win.
“That was a pretty special moment, one that I’ll always remember,” Haehl said. “We got three coaches at almost the same time. So much fun in the moment.”
Haehl, a special teams regular, had a front-row seat to the Eagles’ title-winning rally, which saw Eastern trailing 19-0 with little over two minutes left in the third quarter.
It was a magical run for the Eagles and for Haehl, a 2008 Bellevue graduate. Eastern, which began the season ranked as the No.1 FCS team in the nation, ended the year right where it started – right on top. It started with hype, as the school unveiled its startling-to-the-eyes new red turf and ended with a 9-2 regular season, including a 6-0 home record on the self-coined “Inferno”.
“I absolutely love it,” Haehl said about the turf, which has gained notoriety on ESPN and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. “It was weird the first couple of times, stretching on your stomach, looking down at the turf. You get used to it, although it can be a little difficult to watch on TV.”
EWU would win its next three playoff games, all at home, against Southeast Missouri State, North Dakota State and a semifinal victory over defending-champion Villanova, a win that sent the Eagles to the national title game in Frisco, Texas, against Delaware. They would be without their best player, junior running back Taiwan Jones, who was injured in the 38-31 OT win over North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. Jones, who rushed for 1,807 yards and 14 touchdowns over the course of the season, would end up declaring for the NFL Draft after the championship win.
But Eastern would be without him for the title game, leaving the dynamic offense looking a bit less threatening against Delaware.
“We knew Delaware was good,” Haehl said. “We just had to match up and play.”
The Blue Hens, led by former Penn State quarterback Pat Devlin, came out at Pizza Hut Park on Jan.7 not passing, as expected, but pounding the ball on the ground with Andrew Pierce, who racked up 148 yards.
“They ran the ball well on us and we weren’t really anticipating that,” Haehl said. “They really gave it to us for three quarters.”
Indeed, the Blue Hens scored 19 unanswered points and kept Eastern out of the end zone until just 1:48 remained in this third quarter, when Eagles quarterback Mitchell, a Katy High School (Texas) graduate and former Southern Methodist University transfer, hit receiver Brandon Kaufman for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
The score clearly swung the game’s momentum into Eastern’s favor. Eastern would find paydirt again with 8:16 remaining in the game on another Mitchell touchdown pass, this time to Nicholas Edwards that cut the Eagles deficit to 19-13.
The Eagles defense stood tall again, giving Eastern the ball back with 6:18 remaining, trailing by just six.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Haehl said. “We’ve had multiple come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter, last five minutes, overtime. We’ve been in that situation all year.”
The Eagles drive began at their own 37-yard line, and the team moved downfield quickly, mostly thanks to a 31-yard Mitchell-to-Edwards pass. The drive stalled deep in Delaware territory, setting up a 4th-and-1 for Eastern at the Blue Hens’ 23-yard line, a conversion that would either keep the Eagles’ hopes alive or give Delaware the ball back – and likely the title.
Thus set forth an interesting set of events. Eagles freshman running back Mario Brown would get the ball, driving up the middle and coming close to the first down. The officials spotted the ball, brought out the sticks and measured the distance, awarding the Eagles the first down. Delaware coach K.C. Keeler challenged the ruling on the field, and the officials took their time with the replay, eventually re-spotting the ball and measuring the sticks again, which again resulted in an Eastern first down. Then came another cringing moment for players on the sideline and viewers alike.
The officials, after speaking with Keeler, again went under the hood. No one seemed to understand what the officials were doing, whether they were reviewing the call yet again or something else.
It turned out the officials were looking to make sure the chains were properly reset. After the delay, Eastern had its first down and still had a shot to win the game.
“Four minutes that seemed like four hours,” Haehl said. “After that happened, I remember [defensive tackle] Tyler Jolley saying ‘this is destiny, that has to be destiny.'”
Three plays later, the Eagles found the end zone. Mitchell hit Kaufman for an 11-yard score, their second touchdown connection of the day, and Eastern took the lead for the first time in the game, 20-19 with just 2:47 left to play.
That gave Delaware time to maneuver and the Blue Hens, with alum (and U.S. Vice President) Joe Biden in the stands, moved the ball downfield quickly, getting to the Eastern 39-yard line before running into a 4th-and-10 with just 52 seconds to play. With an accurate field goal kicker, the Blue Hens were just a conversion and some short yards away from a potential game-winning field goal.
But it wouldn’t be. Devlin hit a wide-open Mark Schenauer, but Schenauer caught the ball funny and fell one yard short of a first down. Eastern got the ball back, Mitchell took two knees, Haehl and others splashed Baldwin, and Eastern Washington University had its first national championship in school history.
Since then, things have been a blur. The team traveled back to Cheney immediately after the game, arriving in town around 3 a.m. Haehl and others went to Zips (a Cheney fast-food staple, and the only 24-hour restaraunt in the city of just over 10,000) before heading home. Haehl didn’t go to bed until 6:30 that morning, instead watching a recorded version of the game and watching the morning Sportscenter highlights on ESPN with his roommates (and teammates), brothers Tyler and Nick Washburn, both Skyline graduates.
“I’m getting goosebumps right now just talking about it,” he said. “I’m really lucky to be a part of that team.”
Haehl said his days at Bellevue helped him through the grind of a long playoff run. The intensity and the coaching of Butch Goncharoff and the rest of the staff, he said, has helped him become a better college player.
“Those days were amazing, going through the playoffs and being a part of it…that was a dynasty and I don’t care what other people say,” Haehl said. “But I have to admit that the national championship run was amazing and even more special. It’s the nation; it’s everybody. And it may not seem big right now, being in the moment, but looking back in however many years, I’ll realize how big it is and how all of us helped put Eastern on the map.”
But now it’s back to business for Haehl and the Eagles. The team had a final celebration in Spokane last weekend, and now are already looking forward to defending their title.
For Haehl, it’s a shot at a starting position. He didn’t get a lot of defensive snaps this year, but that can be forgiven considering he played behind senior J.C. Sherritt, this season’s Buck Buchanan award winner, an honor that recognizes the FCS’ top defender.
“Everything’s up for grabs,” Haehl said. “This 2011 team hasn’t accomplished anything. It’s a new season.”