Solid program built <br> on solid players

IN A WIDE ranging conversation, coach <b>Mike Levenseller</b> talked with <i></I> this past week. The offensive coordinator reflects on the regular season and the state of the program in today's installment. A special three-part, CF.C exclusive.

Consider the accomplishments of this senior class. Take some time to study the talent currently residing within the roster. Take a moment to appreciate what this coaching staff accomplished in its first year together. And then take a look further back - and consider the last three seasons.

The football program at Washington State has come a long way.

"It's a solid program. Outside of the Apple Cup frustrations, we still have a chance to be the only Pac-10 team in (modern) history to have three consecutive 10-win seasons - that opportunity is still there," said offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller.

"Regardless of whether we get that done or not, its just been a great, solid run. We've lost to one California team in 3 years, haven't lost to an Arizona team in that time. The last couple years we've done a good job against the Oregon schools."

"I don't think there's been that kind of success in the Pac-10 since modern day schedules have been around. And we didn't lose a game at home this year. And with three straight Bowl games, all those things kind of speak for themselves. But more than that, I think it's a solid program with solid kids."

"Our strength program is exceptional, coach Rob Oviatt does a great job. I'm not saying we're going to win 10 games every year but I am saying we're going to put a competitive product on the field for the Cougar fans."

As special as its been of late, and as good as a nine win regular season is, there's still a sense of not being satisfied. It tells you a lot about this program - to be 9-3 and not content with the season's outcome.

"I'd rather be 12-0," said coach Levenseller.

ONE OF THE more notable surprises on offense this year has been authored by a senior running back. But he wasn't necessarily at the forefront in many Cougar fans' minds at the start of the season. That didn't last long. So who was the biggest surprise?

"I think probably Jonathan Smith," said coach Levy.

"He made it through the whole season - and he played well the entire time. He made a commitment during the offseason to get better and he did a great job of that."

Meanwhile, the man handing off the ball to Smith turned into one of the year's MVPs. In ‘03, Matt Kegel dispelled of any doubts in the same way he shook off injuries. Just how much did Kegel mean to both this offense and this Cougars' team?

"Oh an awful lot. He's been the backbone of the offense. I don't know if you can even put a value on that," said Levenseller.

The sheer breadth of Kegel's contributions are not readily apparent to many Coug fans; as so many occurred off the field of play. It began a year ago this January, immediately after the Cougs' trip to the Rose Bowl.

"His intangibles, his leadership ability - his ability to lead in winter conditioning. It goes way back," said Levenseller.

"His ability to get all the players together and not take ‘No' for an answer - that they were going to get together and get things done and have a common goal. I think Matt's done a great job that way."

And while Kegel entered the season with some wondering how good a field general the Cougs had, the coaches weren't among them. "I think Matt's developed well. I don't know that it was a surprise to us, but maybe to most people he was," said coach Levy.

"I think he did a great job this year. He was very focused and did a great job of leading. And he played very well."

Kegel's confidence; his mental strength, has been well documented. But don't discount his physical attributes. "And he's physically strong too," Levenseller pointed out. "He took a couple hits, and had the ability to keep going."

Those hits resulted in two dislocated shoulders and an MCL strain - and that's but a partial list. One amazing display this season, ranking right up there with Jason Gesser running around on one leg against UCLA in '02, was Kegel shrugging off a dislocation to return to lead the Cougs to a win over Stanford.

He missed all of one offensive series after the injury. One. His first pass upon returning was a touchdown. His next pass was a successful 2-point conversion. That speaks volumes.

ONE OF KEGEL'S favorite targets this season, especially on third down, was Scott Lunde. Lunde simply made the middle his home. Fully exposed, wide receivers run the risk of getting crushed on crossing patterns. Oftentimes, they find themselves being separated from the ball.

Yet, Lunde not only held onto the ball, he also came away with a first down - or more - when all was said and done. All he needed was to stay healthy, because the talent and the drive was already present.

"A really, really physical kid. He doesn't mind going over the middle - He's pretty special that way," said Levenseller.

"After the preseason, he stayed healthy. He actually started making a real good push, and a lot of contributions, last year. Unfortunately, he broke (a wing on the low vertebrae) in his back last year and that set him back."

"And this year, he had a hip flexor during two a days and got set back from that; because he was the starter coming into the season."

Lunde and this group of seniors has left a legacy for those that will follow. The state of the program is on more solid footing than perhaps at any time in its history. One can point to the accomplishments of the last three seasons as but a single example.

And the future is, indeed, bright.

Coming Thursday, the second in a three-part series. Coach Levenseller discusses quarterback, running back and tight end, and some of the possibilities for those positions in '04.

In the final installment Monday, coach Levenseller talks offensive line, recruiting, the art of play-calling and what it will mean to say goodbye to this senior class.

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