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Thursday, September 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:07 A.M.
Blaine Newnham / Times associate editor
For any number of reasons one of them the installation of FieldTurf our expensive football stadium is bringing us more than just professional football.
Bellevue High's epic win over the unbeatable team from California, De La Salle, Washington State's annual game here in September, and, again, this Saturday in the best college football rivalry you don't know about.
Western and Central usually play near the border or across the mountains, in small stadiums so full you can't get in if you wanted to, kids playing football not because they are trying to get into the NFL, but for their school, their teammates and themselves.
Saturday they'll play in the "Battle in Seattle."
If you want to watch college football in a purer form, then buy a $10 ticket for the Qwest Field game between Western Washington and Central Washington.
The game starts at 6 o'clock, the partying many hours before that.
A year ago, in the first game played between the schools in Seattle, the crowd topped 16,000, with a few thousand left outside trying to get in because those managing the stadium hadn't anticipated so much interest.
"The feeling of playing against Central never leaves you," said Orlondo Steinauer, a 31-year-old former Western star. "We learned to hate them, they learned to hate us.
"It is no less in basketball than it is in football. It is just one of the best times of your life."
Almost every player on each team grew up in Washington, sometimes neighbors and friends, sometimes not, but products of our first-class high-school football programs.
In many cases, the rural kids choose to play for Central, the urban kids for Western.
The schools are not unlike Washington State and Washington, east and west, but Central (with 9,000 students) is closer to Western (13,000) in enrollment and has been superior on the field.
This year, Western's star player, wide receiver Andy Olson, is from Chehalis, while Central's, wide receiver Brian Potucek, is from Tacoma.
Steinauer plays cornerback for Toronto of the Canadian Football League. Last week, he was named the league's defensive player of the week after nine tackles, a sack and a 50-yard return of an interception for a touchdown.
He played in the best game between Western and Central, in 1995, when Western was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country.
It was the second meeting of the two that year. In the first one, Steinauer intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown. In the playoffs, however, Central won 28-21 as Jon Kitna completed 34 of 54 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns.
"I like to think of that game," said Rob Smith, the Western coach, "as a time when we had the best team in the country and they had the best player, and the best player won."
Smith, who was Don James' first recruit at Washington, has had as much to say about this rivalry as anyone. From 1979 to 1991, Central beat Western 13 straight and still leads the series that began in 1922, 56-32-4.
Smith took the job in 1989 to change that.
Since 1991, Central and Western have split the 14 games played. The rivalry couldn't get any closer.
Last year, Central won the game in Seattle, 29-20, but lost the second game in Bellingham, 17-16.
This year, Western is 2-1 after upsetting Nebraska-Omaha, while Central is 1-3 after losing to Eastern Washington, a Division I-AA opponent, second-ranked North Dakota and defending NAIA champion Carroll (Montana).
As successful as both programs have been, it isn't easy surviving in Division II. Because of the paucity of Division II schools in the West, Central and Western are forced to play in a four-team league, Humboldt State and Western Oregon joining them. Each team plays the other twice. Nonconference games require going at least to Colorado to find an opponent.
Both Western and Central offer limited scholarships, the equivalent of 20 to 25. To be a Division I-AA school like Eastern, they would have to offer 65 scholarships. To drop to Division III to join Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound and Whitworth, they would have to quit giving aid.
Fiscally, the game in Seattle helps no end. One school official estimated that both Central and Washington received $100,000 for playing at Qwest Field.
"With no junior-college football in the state," said Steinauer, "kids who don't get Division I scholarships need to know there is a respected alternative."
At Central and Western there is.
"We play with the same pads, the same helmets and the same time commitment as the D-I players," Steinauer said. "We just have more fun doing it."
Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com
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