Skyline grads left to wonder what’s next after WWU football cut

July 7, 2009

By Christopher Huber

It was out of the blue. In early January, former Skyline High School football players Nick Rocco, Nick Cragin and Zach Schrader, along with their Western Washington University teammates, got a text message from their coach to meet at the Viking Union building. They weren’t sure what was up.The mood was quiet and somber as the 95 football players tried to figure out the occasion for the spur-of-the-moment meeting, organized by WWU president Bruce Shepard and their coaches.

State higher-ed funding was being cut, the athletic department needed to get back in the black and the football program was the greatest draw on the budget.

So, Shepard made the tough decision, announcing Jan. 8 that the university would discontinue the football program.

“It was just kind of a shock,” said Rocco, a defensive lineman who made first-team All-Conference in the 2008 season. “That was the first time we had really heard about it.”

Shepard cited rapidly rising field rental and travel expenses coupled with slow revenue growth in the midst of unprecedented state funding challenges as the main causes for cutting the program.

The football program had been operating on a deficit for the past few years, according to news reports. Cutting it will save the university close to $500,000 per year.

Rocco and Schrader said Western’s program was on the rise in terms of success and popularity, having completed its first winning season (6-5) since 2004 last fall.

“It was literally within five years of becoming a dominant school in football,” Schrader said. “We were just that close to becoming a playoff-caliber team.”

So, what happened next?

At first, Rocco said he and his two best friends from Skyline were angry at the school, but they realized if they wanted to keep playing football in college, they had to get over it and find another program.

“We just came back from break and were all excited for next year, and I was shocked that they could do this,” Rocco said. But “knowing I have two more years, I worked hard in the weight room.”

Upon learning the fate of the program, coaches and recruiters from colleges around the region scrambled to Western’s campus to try and scoop up valuable players, Schrader said. Some players landed scholarships and roster spots within a month, but some took longer.

“I thought, ‘Well, what’s next? I wanna play football. Is this it for me? Is this my last season I’m going to play football?’” Schrader said about his reaction to the news. “I was more upset, because I was figuring I went to school to play football.What was I going to do?”

All of the players who chose to stay at Western retained their scholarships and those who transferred are eligible to play immediately, rather than delaying another year on the bench for their new team. The WWU athletic department has placed more than 40 players in other football programs, said sports information director Paul Madison. Approximately 30 remained at Western and the team lost 15-20 players to graduation, he said.

“We knew that the cuts were going to come,” Madison said. “And they made the decision when they did so they would be able to look for another school and team.”

In lieu of the university cutting the program, former WWU football players gathered financial and moral support and formed Save WWU Football, a group that’s opposed to the cancellation of the football program.

“The biggest frustration has been the lack of will on the part of the university to engage in discussion,” said Save WWU Football executive vice-president Jason Stiles. “Football is the welcome mat for any university.”

It has gathered $1 million in pledged support from 550 members, but Madison said the university has figured it would need closer to $12 million to legitimately support the team on an ongoing basis.

Where are the former Spartans now?

This spring, the three 2006 Skyline graduates secured spots to play in the fall 2009 season. Although they weren’t able to workout with the team in spring ball, the 5-11, 225-pound lineman Rocco and 5-10, 210-pound linebacker Cragin each received tuition scholarships to play at Dixie State College in Saint George, Utah.

In the 2008 season, Cragin started 11 games for the Vikings and had 75 tackles and one interception, according to WWU athletic department statistics.

Rocco was a unanimous first-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference all-star last season, and also earned GNAC all-academic honors and was the WWU defensive lineman of the year. He had 42 tackles, 13 of which were for a loss, and 6.5 sacks in 11 games in 2008.

Schrader, who made second-team all-GNAC with 76 tackles, four interceptions and one fumble recovery in 11 games, garnered a full scholarship to play defensive back for Sacramento State University, he said.

“I wasn’t worried about if I could go play somewhere,” Schrader said. “I had the film. I had the experience. It was a matter of putting out the effort.”

Schrader and Rocco said they’ll mostly miss the friendships they established while at Western, but they acknowledged it will also take some time getting used to being so much farther away from home and family.

“We’re all best friends and wanted to play football. That’s why we went to Western. That’s why we went to college,” Rocco said. “You feel like you have to leave all that.”

Reach Reporter Christopher Huber at 392-6434, ext. 242, or chuber@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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