LEWISTON — It doesn’t strike you as the kind of place where a college football team begins nurturing a dream.
A green sign on these middle-school football fields proclaims this as the home of the Sacajawea Braves. A block away, a horse grazes in a small pasture as Washington State clicks through a 70-play scrimmage.
Oregon is gearing up for a run at the national title on its sleek practice premises in Eugene. Meanwhile, the Cougars went grassroots, finishing on Sunday its 10 days of fall work off campus to ease the space crunch around a WSU football-operations building under construction.
If it wasn’t opulent, it was functional here, perhaps even requisite to a program still learning what it takes to win, having failed to do so for a decade now.
“We’ve made huge strides this camp,” said quarterback Connor Halliday, after WSU had finished the hourlong scrimmage under warm, threatening skies. “My biggest deal is, this is the closest group of guys I’ve ever been a part of at WSU. Caring about the guy next to you will make you play a heck of a lot harder than if you don’t have that great a relationship with him.”
When practices were done, yellow school buses would transport the Cougars to dorms at Lewis-Clark State College. If it was spartan, it also seemed salutary.
“I thought we were going to be in a hotel,” Halliday said sheepishly. “The Red Lion is where we stay for home games. It was frustrating at times, sleeping in a dorm bed, but coach (Mike) Leach knows what he’s doing.”
Staying off-campus has been tried in the Pac-12 in fits and starts for decades. Arizona State has dusted off an old tradition and goes to Tontozona in the mountains north of Phoenix. Jim Mora takes UCLA to the oppressive heat of San Bernardino.
When Rick Neuheisel coached Washington, the Huskies went to The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Arizona, under Dick Tomey, used to head to Douglas, near the Mexican border. Cal, way back when, camped at nearby St. Mary’s College, and even in Goleta, Calif., near Santa Barbara.
Can’t say I remember a program ever going out of state, though.
“The bonding experience was great,” said linebacker Darryl Monroe. “There were no distractions. There was nothing to be distracted by.”
Only by an amply furnished rec center at L-C State, where there was ping pong, shuffleboard and pool, and by consensus, sophomore linebacker Tana Pritchard of Clover Park High ruled.
But it’s the quality of practice that consumes Leach, and he seemed satisfied with what went down here — at least pleased enough that he hewed to the relatively short scrimmage rather than try to squeeze something more out of his players.
“Part of it is, we’ve had really good work during the (previous) team periods,” Leach said. “The team periods, for 36 plays, have been really intense.”
There’s a brisk tempo to practice, which Leach ascribes partly to Halliday, saying, “Everything he does is fast. He’s just naturally a faster operator, which I think has positively rubbed off on the rest of the team.”
In this scrimmage, backup quarterback Austin Apodaca had a 25-yard scoring pass to Dominique Williams leading off a series between second units. Halliday had an early 46-yard, jump-ball completion to Isiah Myers, and two scoring throws, one of 34 yards to freshman River Cracraft, already in the picture for playing time.
Receiver Vince Mayle, a junior-college transfer, got behind the third-team defense and was hit in stride by freshman Tyler Bruggman for a 62-yard score.
And on defense, linebackers Monroe and Jeremiah Allison had hits that resounded, linebacker Justin Sagote had a goal-line collision to deny a touchdown, cornerback Nolan Washington had a pair of pass breakups and linebacker Ivan McLennan a couple of sacks.
“I feel we’re way past where we were a year ago,” said Monroe.
Said Leach, “I thought it was pretty crisp execution for this time of year.”
Clay McGuire, the offensive line coach, thought it could have been better. He told his charges he wasn’t impressed with their work, and shortly, they were doing post-practice rolls across the field.
It had the look of football camp, whether it’s at Tontozona or Sacajawea.