The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Hounds hope to end on high note

 

December 4, 2019

Kevin Wilson

Johnny Smith takes the pitch upfield during Monday's Eastern New Mexico football practice. The Greyhounds close out their season Saturday in the Heritage Bowl against Southern Arkansas.

PORTALES — As late afternoon became twilight and twilight became night at Greyhound Stadium on Monday, the Eastern New Mexico football team was still working.

And that was just fine with every Greyhound player, every Greyhound coach. It was early December, and ENMU still had a game to prepare for, still had a reason to practice. The Hounds last month were invited to the Heritage Bowl in Corsicana, Texas, which will kick off this Saturday at noon Central Standard Time and pit Eastern (7-4) against Southern Arkansas (8-3).

ENMU was awarded a bowl berth after winning its last home game over then-ranked Angelo State in overtime, and beating Western Oregon on the road to end the regular season.

“This has been a fun group, so it’s exciting to go out and go to battle with them one more time,” Eastern’s third-year head coach Kelley Lee said after Monday’s practice. “It’s always good to get a reward for finishing the season strong. ... There are only 16 Division II teams practicing this week, eight for bowl games, eight left in the playoffs, so it’s exciting to be practicing in December.”

“Aw, super-excited,” Greyhounds redshirt senior quarterback Wyatt Strand said after the practice. “Last football game I’ll play here, so I’m hoping to get a win.”

“I’m very excited,” senior running back Paul Terry, Eastern’s leading rusher (1,778 yards), said after the practice. “We thought our last game was going to be Western Oregon, and I’m a senior so I thought that was going to be my last game for the Eastern Greyhounds. But just getting this bowl invite gives me another shot to play.”

“I’m pretty excited,” Greyhounds junior offensive lineman Vili Fisiiahi said after practicing Monday. “I’m just happy we have another game of football for ourselves and the program. I think it’s a good experience for us too.”

Of course, Southern Arkansas is also excited to still be playing.

“Any opportunity for us to be able to play outside of our league ... it’s a good thing for us,” Southern Arkansas head coach Bill Keopple said by telephone Monday night. “ENMU has had a successful year. Obviously a tough opponent.”

For the Greyhounds, aside from the extra football and the honor, there are chances at history. No Eastern football team has ever won a Division II postseason game. And the senior class has a chance for its 28th victory, which would tie the school record for winningest class.

“It’d be awesome for them,” Lee said. “We were able to send them out with a win at Senior Day (against Angelo State), won the last game of the regular season (at Western Oregon), and if we can send them out one more time with a win in the bowl, it would just be icing on top of the cake.

“A lot of them played as four-year starters in this group, a couple of transfers have been two-year starters for us,” Lee added, “so they’ve played a lot of football, played in a lot of games for us, and won a lot of games. And if we can get them that 28th win, tie the record, that would be phenomenal.”

The players due to return next year would love to send their senior teammates out with that distinction.

“We take a lot of pride in it,” Fisiiahi said. “It would mean a lot for this senior class, a strong senior class.”

Now there is the matter of trying to beat Southern Arkansas, the team that stands in the way.

“They’re a well-coached team, 8-3, only lost to good teams,” Lee said. “They’re disciplined, they don’t make very many mistakes. And defensively they’re physical, so they present a big challenge for us. We’re going to have to play mistake-free football, take care of the ball, get touchdowns in the red zone; we don’t want to have to settle for field goals. Offensively they execute really good when they stay on track, so we’re going to have to get them behind the chains. ... We’re going to have to create some tackles for losses and stuff like that to get them off track.”

“They’ve played a lot of good football,” Terry said. “And their defense, they run at you and they’re not afraid to hit you, so I think it’s going to be a very physical, tough game.”

Perhaps a bit less physical than Southern Arkansas is used to because three defensive linemen are out with injuries that required surgery.

“Any time you lose quality players it hurts your depth,” Keopple said, “so that’s not good.”

And Keopple noted that the offense has been hit with injuries too. “But we still feel like we’ve got enough (to win),” he said.

Each team, despite the game’s significance and aside from the opponent’s specifics, say their general preparation isn’t much different.

“We came in just like any other week,” Strand said. “Taking it seriously just like if we were playing a Lone Star Conference team here this weekend. It’s just like any other game.”

“It’s always intense. Every week is intense,” Fisiiahi said. “That’s how we practice.”

Kevin Wilson

ENMU redshirt freshman Tafari Gomillion runs upfield during an offensive drill Monday afternoon.

“Winning football games doesn’t change from week to week,” Keopple said. “We’ve got to take care of the football on our side and not make a bunch of mental mistakes. Those are the things that you have to do week in and week out. And obviously we’ve got to do a nice job against their running game. Defensively they give you a lot of different looks; it’s going to be a matter of handling those looks.”

Southern Arkansas has struggled against Lone Star Conference teams in recent years, falling to Texas A&M-Kingsville and Midwestern State. But that doesn’t have Keopple and his team intimidated.

“We’re excited about getting to play a Lone Star opponent,” he said. “That’s a positive thing and we’re looking forward to it. It should be an interesting game.”

And Eastern is not intimidated by never having won at this level this late before.

“We’ve got a chance to go out and get a postseason win at the Division II level, which would be a landmark for Eastern,” Lee said. “So we’re excited about that opportunity.”

 
 

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