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Holiday Bowl 2016 will be the WSU swan song for a very important group of seniors

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From 12 wins in Leach’s first three seasons to 17 (and counting) over the past two, these guys playing in their final game have set WSU up for success for years to come.

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

One of our favorite writing traditions at CougCenter is our annual celebration of the senior class in the lead up to senior day.

We love it because of the kinship we feel with these guys that comes not just from watching them represent us all on Saturdays, but from the years that they spent in Pullman walking the streets, sitting in the classrooms, and hanging out in the bars — the same streets, classrooms and bars that we frequented as students.

For that reason, it’s generally a pretty sappy and appreciative story, regardless of the record compiled throughout the players’ time on the team.

This year, though, such a tribute didn’t quite feel right — at least, not at that point, right before the Apple Cup. After all, that wasn’t going to be their last game; heck, prior to kickoff, the possibility existed that they had not one, but two more games to go.

That the Pac-12 Championship Game was on the line in that matchup says pretty much everything you need to know about what this class of seniors has meant to Washington State football.

When talking about how the program got from there (9-40 in four years under Paul Wulff) to here (17 wins and counting over the past two seasons with a pair of bowl games, a stretch only exceeded in WSU history by the 30-wins-in-three-seasons run from 2001-03), I think it’s pretty impossible to overstate the influence this class has had as the backbone of this resurgence in the program under Mike Leach.

What makes the story even better, I think, is that success wasn’t easy to come by. For the fifth-year guys such as Gabe Marks, Eduardo Middleton and Robert Barber — each of whom decided to come to Pullman when the newly hired one-time Texas Tech coach (who had been out of football for two years) could only sell a vision that included a yet-to-be-constructed football-only operations facility — their first few seasons did include a bowl appearance. But the overall record in that time was just 12-25 and there was plenty of room for fans to doubt whether the program was really on the right track under the most highly compensated coach in WSU history.

Behind the scenes, the ship was turning. And these guys made sure that last season’s nine-win campaign wasn’t the sort of one-off they’ve experienced down in Berkeley and could be headed for over in Boulder.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State
Gabe Marks being Gabe Marks
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gabe Marks will graduate from WSU with his name littered all over the record books. He flipped from SMU to WSU shortly after Leach was hired and remains, even five seasons later, Leach’s most highly regarded recruit.

The physical talent only tells part of the story. Marks is the quintessential “chip on his shoulder” Coug, a player whose drive to be great is possibly only exceeded by the joy he takes in embarrassing his opponents, very few of whom had any hope of covering him without help from a second defender.

He also will be remembered as one of the most loquacious players in program history, but not in the empty way that plagues so many athletes and coaches. At times funny, at times stinging, and at other times introspective and thoughtful, Marks was always entertaining.

The idiom “heart of a lion” has become cliche for most; it’s anything but with Marks.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
River Cracraft
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The same could be said of Riley Sorenson and River Cracraft, although for different reasons. High school teammates from Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the pair entered WSU together in 2013 and would start roughly 70 games combined.

Cracraft battled injuries throughout his career, which was marked by his dependability from his inside receiver position. While Marks’ Twitter handle is @throwitupto9 — and for good reason — @JustTossItTo21 could just as easily have been Cracraft’s. Need to move the sticks? Whether it was Connor Halliday or Luke Falk, Cracraft’s hands and knack for finding open spaces in the middle of a zone made him a common target; so much so, he leaves second all-time at WSU in receptions.

Sorenson’s story, which involves the loss of both of his parents within a year — as well as his own cancer diagnosis — is well known, but no less awe-inspiring because of it. He and the guy who started all those games next to him for the last three years, Eduardo Middleton, were absolute rocks in the middle of WSU’s retooled offensive line, symbols of the growth in that unit from the team’s greatest weakness to perhaps its greatest strength.

Shalom Luani didn’t have the, uh, privilege of grinding through those tough first few years of Leach’s tenure, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t grinding, and that doesn’t mean he had any less of an impact on the program, at least on the field. Leaving his family behind in American Samoa to chase his dream of playing football at City College of San Francisco, he made his way to Pullman to eventually become an All-Pac-12 first team selection this season. How different might the beginning of this season have been with Luani on the field? That’s how important he was.

Robert Barber also came to Pullman from American Samoa, and he also faced challenges — first from an unfortunate circumstance (knee injury as a freshman), later from his own questionable choices (a fight that led to his temporary expulsion from school). But when he played, he was excellent in the interior of the defensive line, and he will leave school with the ultimate prize: That degree that he traveled so many thousands of miles for.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
Parker Henry
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Other notable grinders in this class include Parker Henry and John Thompson, both former walk-ons who forced their way onto the field to make significant contributions late in their careers.

By the end of his junior year, Henry was the starting nickelback; before this season, he was selected by Leach to be one of the team’s two representatives at Pac-12 media days. (Marks, of course, was the other.) Injuries knocked Henry from his starting spot midway through this season, but he would return to see action as an undersized-but-tough-as-nails linebacker.

Thompson, meanwhile, filled in admirably for Cracraft over the past two seasons; the biggest catch of his career came down in Boulder, when he hauled in a touchdown that would give the Cougs their final lead against Colorado.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon
John Thompson
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

And, finally, we’d be remiss not to mention Treshon Broughton, Colton Teglovic, Paris Taylor and Jeremiah Mitchell. While their playing time might not have been as extensive as the others, they all played an important part in growing the program.

I think the best part about all of this isn’t that they are senior class that had a lot of success; we’ve had classes like that before. It’s that they are one of only a couple who could say they were a part of not only getting the program through some lean years to a high degree of success, but that they did so in a way in which the program is set up to continue to be successful even after they’re gone.

They didn’t just ball out on the field — they helped establish a culture that can perpetuate winning for years to come..

So thanks, seniors, for all you’ve done to get the WSU program to this point. You’ll be remembered fondly, and I’m grateful to have the privilege of watching you one more time tonight.

Go Cougs!