LA GRANDE — The Midwest has become almost like a second home for the Eastern Oregon football team, having won in that region twice in the past two weeks during the NAIA playoffs.
One more victory there, and the Mountaineers will head even farther east — to Daytona Beach, Florida, for the national title game.
The ninth-seeded Mountaineers have hit the road once again ahead of today’s game against No. 2 Baker in Baldwin City, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.
While many teams might begrudge spending week after week on the road, linebacker Tucker Stanley, who had one of the Mountaineers’ six interceptions during last week’s 17-0 upset at No. 1 Marian, said Eastern has embraced it.
“We’ve been a good road team this year,” Stanley said. “We don’t look at being on the road as a huge disadvantage to us anymore. We travel well as a team. We show up, (and) we take care of business. We look at it as a business trip.”
The road has indeed been friendly to the Mountaineers this season. Eastern has gone a perfect 7-0 away from La Grande.
Eastern is also showing the nation it is no pushover, already picking up victories in hostile environments in the opening round against Doane in Nebraska and last week at Marian in Indianapolis.
“To go in there and beat the No. 1 team in the country that won their last 20 straight is a big confidence booster,” said punter Nathan Harden. “Our defense shut down the No. 1 receiver in the nation. Huge boost. Huge buzz going around the team. It’s a fun atmosphere right now.”
The victories have even reaffirmed Eastern’s belief that it is capable of playing with — and defeating — any team it faces at the NAIA level, a payoff of playing in the tough Frontier Conference with teams such as Southern Oregon, which has reached the past two NAIA title games.
“We knew we were battle tested. Going through this conference you have tough games every week,” quarterback Zach Bartlow said. “We figured if we were able to get past the conference and get to the national playoffs, we’d have as good of a shot as anybody. We’re going on the road, playing some tough teams. Marian was very legit, and we were able to sneak one out. It just furthered our belief in ourselves that we can do this. We’re feeling good about ourselves right now.”
Coach Tim Camp is in his eighth season in La Grande and has led the Mountaineers to the playoffs for the first time.
And while today’s game is, for the third week in a row, the biggest in the history of EOU football, the Mountaineers are approaching it like they have in each game they have played the last two months — with a “go 1-0” mentality. The Mountaineers (10-2) started the season 2-2 and rattled off six straight wins to finish the regular season.
“The last two months, we’ve really been in playoff mode,” said defensive lineman Austin Brown. “Another week is really nothing new to us. We just want to go to work and really keep this thing going as long as possible. That’s been our goal since August, so why not finish it out?”