Talk about a pleasant surprise.
Austin Toney arrived at the Eastern Oregon University campus last Friday expecting to be assigned to a small, austere dormitory room.
Instead, the former Phoenix High football standout's living quarters at one of the school's residence halls was something of a collegiate kingdom: He's got his own comfortable bedroom and a bathroom, plus there's a mini kitchen.
It's quite nice — "more like an apartment" the wide receiver admits — but he and two other former local gridiron standouts — Rogue River running back Christian Reyes and Illinois Valley quarterback Roger Hults — aren't in La Grande to lounge around in their dandy digs.
They've all been hard at work, gearing up for this Saturday's 59th annual Shriners East-West All-Star game in the dry Eastern Oregon heat.
Members of the East squad, Toney, Reyes and Hults were handpicked by their coaches after each turned in magnificent senior seasons for their respective schools.
The philanthropic all-star contest — which raises funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children — will allow them and some of the state's other fine 2011 graduates from schools in the 4A and smaller classifications to showcase their skills and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Players met in Wilsonville for a dinner last Thursday, visited the Shriners Hospital in Portland that Friday and then boarded buses that traveled to La Grande.
Ever since last Saturday, the young men have been cramming in as much practice, training and studying as possible in hopes that they'll have an edge over their opponent.
"We get up at 6:30 a.m., go to breakfast, do a walkthrough from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., a practice from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., lunch, then a walkthrough from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., a practice from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., dinner and then another walkthrough," says Hults.
All three local players agreed that they are eager to suit up and play after a week's worth of buildup. The contest will take place at Bulldog Memorial Stadium in Baker City, which is about 44 miles from La Grande. The game will be televised on ROOT with coverage beginning around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Toney, Reyes and Hults will be wearing the red jerseys.
"I can't wait," Toney says. "It's almost like during the regular season waiting for Friday nights. It seems like it is taking way longer."
Toney was a Skyline Conference first-team pick and a 4A all-state honorable mention selection on both offense and defense this fall for the Pirates, who finished 5-4 overall. Along with his duties at receiver, he also played defensive back.
Toney says he has enjoyed meeting his new teammates and participating in off-the-field activities, which have included meals and contests. Last Friday during the all-stars' visit to the children's hospital, Toney encountered a small child who needed a wheelchair to get around.
At first very shy, the young boy quickly warmed up to Toney and a few other players and was all smiles as he played air hockey with the group.
"It means a lot being part of the team," says Toney, who is a starting receiver for the East. "Obviously it's an all-star game and you get to play with some great athletes and it's also for a great cause. It was a pretty cool experience (going to the hospital). You feel like you are really giving back."
Toney is set to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene and has been offered a chance to try out with the team.
Hults was a 3A first-team all-state selection and the Southern Cascade Hybrid's player of the year for the Cougars, who went 7-5 and advanced to the state quarterfinals before falling to Santiam Christian.
"The season was great," Hults says. "We won our first playoff game in school history, so that was sweet to be a part of that. All of our hard work paid off."
The 18-year-old Hults, who is currently second on the East's depth chart, was somewhat of a mystery man when he arrived to meet the coaching staff.
"I didn't realize he was a quarterback until I got here," says East coach Shane Hedrick, who leads Central High of Independence in the fall. "I misread the paperwork. He got here and said he was a quarterback. It's been a pleasant surprise to have him at quarterback. He has some real skills."
Hults will attend Pacific University in Forest Grove in the fall. He plans to play basketball and golf there.
For Reyes, the Shriners game is another chance to prove himself. After wrapping up his record-breaking career at Rogue River (3-6) and experiencing some difficult circumstances, the explosive back opted to commit to playing for the College of the Siskiyous.
"I was talking to a bunch of other schools," says Reyes, who was a first-team all-state and conference honoree. "One day things were not working the way I wanted to and (I) decided the junior college route was the best for me. I figured if I was going to a J.C., I wanted it to be close to home. I contacted them and it turned out they had a good football program."
Now, the 18-year-old Reyes is out to prove he belongs among the mix of marvelous athletes in Eastern Oregon.
"I am competitive, so I want to show the guys my level of play and compare it to their level," he says.
The East squad includes two members from the 4A state champion Baker squad: quarterback Jesse Brown, who was voted the classification's offensive player of the year, and running back Stephen Talbot, the Greater Oregon League player of the year and a first-team all-state selection who's signed to play at Portland State University.
The East should show off a fair mix of its running game and aerial attack, Toney says.
"Coach said we will do 50-50," says Toney, who is 18. "He wants to get everyone the ball and we have some top-notch running backs. There are a lot more plays under center than at Phoenix and we actually huddle, which is new."
Hedrick was effusive in his praise of Toney, Reyes and Hults. He called Toney "a focused young man. He's not really vocal, but he is really easy to coach. It is a pleasure to be around him." Hedrick tabbed Reyes "a dynamic running back with a nice center of gravity. I've seen him make some moves in practice and it keeps me in awe."
The West team is guided by head coach Jon Wolf of Gladstone.
Overall, Hedrick couldn't be more pleased with his group of young men and the maturity and enthusiasm they've shown.
"We as coaches got together back in March and selected our team and when we did that, we did a little homework on the character of kids and their work ethic and, I'll tell you, some of it can be shooting in the dark a little bit," says the 47-year-old Hedrick, who is sharing head coaching responsibilities with Heppner's Greg Grant. "But after being with these kids we were dead on. We have a great group of kids working with us."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com
Talk about a pleasant surprise.