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Eastern opens practice welcoming challenge of being target

Eagles go through the first of 23 scheduled practices leading up to their season opener at Washington on Sept. 3. (Christopher Anderson)
Eagles go through the first of 23 scheduled practices leading up to their season opener at Washington on Sept. 3. (Christopher Anderson)

Don’t be surprised if Eastern Washington University’s football team goes a bit retro this fall and adopts Pat Benetar’s early 1980’s hit single “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as its anthem.

The Eagles are coming off a magical 2010 season in which they won their last 11 games to finish 13-2 and claim the NCAA Division I championship with a 20-19 title-game win over Delaware in Frisco, Tex.

And on Wednesday afternoon, they opened fall camp with the seemingly comfortable realization that they will be on every opponents “must beat” list in 2011.

“I like it,” senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the most valuable player of last year’s title game, said just minutes before the start of Wednesday’s opening practice – the first of 23 Eastern has scheduled prior to its Sept. 3 nonconference season opener against the University of Washington in Seattle, “because it drives you to go out and be even more perfect, if that makes sense.

“Every single team we play – from UW to Idaho State – is going to come out and play us tough. And we’ve got to go into every game knowing everybody is going to give us their best shot, and respond.”

Senior running back and special-teams standout Darriell Beaumonte echoed Mitchell’s sentiments.

“Last season we were riding under the radar, and nobody knew about us,” he said. “We were surprising people, like ‘Oh, they won again.’ But his year it’s expected.

“And every game this year, we’re going to be circled on someone’s calendar, because they can’t wait to play us. So that’s going to make every game that much more intense – which is fine with us.”

Eagles coach Beau Baldwin has refused to put talk about a possible “repeat” off limits to his players, as long as they keep things in perspective.

“Last year, before we had ever won one (national championship) in the history of the school, we still had that as our long-term goal,” Baldwin explained. “So that goal is no different than it was at the start of last year. We’re a confident group, and we’re going into every game again this year with the idea that, if we do the right things and prepare, we should win these ballgames.

“Obviously, it’s a lot easier said that done in this (Big Sky) conference. And with our nonconference schedule, it’s going to be tough. We’re going to have to play well – really well – to come out with victories, but in the end of it all that’s the spot you want to be in. And from this day forward, all I’m going to be focusing on is what we’re doing each day to get there.”

The one thing the Eagles aren’t eager to repeat, however, is the come-from-behind method they used to win too many close games – including the championship matchup against Delaware, where they clawed their way back from a 19-0 deficit – last season.

And to avoid that from happening again, Mitchell had dedicated himself to becoming much more consistent than he was as a first-year transfer from Southern Methodist last season, when he threw a school-record 37 touchdown passes, but was also intercepted 15 times and fumbled the ball away too much for his own liking.

“Cutting down on the turnovers and getting them out of my system,” Mitchell said, when asked what he worked hardest on during the offseason. “I had a lot of fumbles and a lot of interceptions last year, and I have to cut down on those, personally, to help our team succeed.

“I’ve been really focused on that.”

Beaumonte, too, would like a little less stress this season.

“The dramatic comebacks are always great,” he said, “but we’d rather be ahead every game. But whatever the circumstance, and however things play out, we’re always happy to get the ‘W.’ ”

Quick kicks

Eastern will practice in pads for the first time at 3 p.m. on Saturday and hold its first fall scrimmage a week later at 3:30 p.m. at Roos Field. … Torey Hunter, cornerbacks coach for the past three season, has accepted a similar position as an assistant at the University of Idaho. … The only new addition to Baldwin’s staff this fall is former UI standout Josh Feter, who will coach linebackers.

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