Reilly Hennessey felt the clock ticking.
The quarterback from Camas faced one of the most important decisions of his football life.
He could stay at Eastern Washington. Hennessey liked the school, his teammates and the coaches at the Big Sky program. But he was going to play backup this season to fellow junior Gage Gubrud, who broke the FCS national record for passing yards as a sophomore.
Or Hennessey could find a new school. Though it would likely be a smaller program, he could be the starter. He could be in the game during clutch moments. He could lead.
“You only get a certain amount of time to play this game,” Hennessey said. “It’s nothing against Eastern. I loved my time there. But I wanted to be at a place where I could contribute a bit more.”
Hennessey transferred to Central Washington last spring. This season, he has done more than just contribute.
Hennessey led the Wildcats to an 11-0 regular season and the program’s first Great Northwest Athletic Conference title since 2012.
Central Washington earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division-II playoffs. After a first-round bye, Central will host Winona State or Texas A&M Commerce on Nov. 25.
Hennessey has been central to that success. He threw for 2,286 yards and completed 68 percent of his passes, ranking 14th in the nation in pass efficiency. He threw 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Hennessey’s affect on the team isn’t measured in statistics alone.
“He’s got a great personality and work ethic,” CWU coach Ian Shoemaker said. “Other players see him putting in the work and they gravitate toward that.”
His senior season at Camas, Hennessey threw for 3,387 yards and 38 touchdowns and was named Gatorade state player of the year.
At Eastern Washington, Hennessey played in five games his freshman year. He made his debut in the season-opener against Oregon, throwing for 145 yards and two touchdowns in relief of injured starter Jordan West.
After being relegated to a backup role his sophomore year, Hennessey weighed his options.
He said the transfer from Eastern was smooth. Beau Baldwin, who coached EWU until becoming the offensive coordinator at Cal this season, helped steer Hennessey toward his alma mater Central Washington.
Hennessey also heard from four-time all-conference senior linebacker Kevin Haynes, who is from Battle Ground.
“Kevin is one of the reasons I came here,” Hennessey said. “He reached out and said ‘I hear you’re looking for a home. We’d love to have you.’ There’s a certain level of comfort that comes with that familiarity.”
With the transfer completed in time for spring football, Hennessey went to work taking the reins of the team.
For Hennessey, that didn’t mean a bunch of rah-rah speeches.
“Leadership is all about trust,” he said. “People aren’t going to believe in you just because you say ‘trust me.’ Trust is earned through action.”
On the field, Hennessey has flourished in an offense that involves the run-pass option to a high degree.
“He has all the athletic skills. But most importantly, he can make decisions quickly and act on them,” Shoemaker said. “In our offense, it’s all about the decisions he makes.”
That offense opened a previously unseen facet of Hennessey’s game — the ability to run. Hennessey is third on the team with 523 rushing yards and has four rushing touchdowns.
Not bad for a player who had been a pocket passer.
“Coach Shoemaker said he wanted to use my athleticism,” Hennessey said. “My dad and I were joking, ‘what athleticism is he seeing?’ I’ve been playing quarterback for 10 years and it just now comes out that I can be a dual threat?”
Shoemaker said evidence of Hennessey’s running ability has been there all along.
“If you watch the film against Oregon, some of his best plays are when he escapes the pocket as protection breaks down,” Shoemaker said. “If he can run away from athletes at Oregon, he can run away from athletes at Humboldt State.”
Central Washington scored more than 40 points in six of its 11 wins. Hennessey’s best stretch statistically came in consecutive games against Simon Fraser, Humboldt State and Western Oregon — He had five touchdown passes and completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each game.
Yet Hennessey said the team hasn’t reached its full potential. That makes the first-round bye a welcome reward.
“This week is all about us,” he said. “We’re focusing on what we need to clean up, along with getting better healthwise.”
Haynes named GNAC defensive MVP
Haynes can add another honor to what already is among the most decorated careers among Central Washington football players.
Wednesday, the senior linebacker from Battle Ground won his second consecutive GNAC defensive player of the year honor.
Haynes is the second GNAC player to win the award twice. He collected 84 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss.
Haynes will end his career as the GNAC’s all-time leader in solo tackles and a four-time first-team all-conference selection.
“It’s special to see players who have been here as long as I have gain that level of success,” said Shoemaker, who arrived at Central Washington in 2014. “Just seeing his love for the program, it’s great for him to reap the benefits of all the years he has invested in this place.”