Just because it's an NCAA Division II game doesn't mean this rivalry isn't heated. When Central Washington and Western Washington meet tonight...

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Just because it’s an NCAA Division II game doesn’t mean this rivalry isn’t heated.

When Central Washington and Western Washington meet tonight at Qwest Field in the fifth Battle in Seattle, the Cascade Cup is on the line and the players might be hitting a bit harder.

“It’s a great rivalry,” said Central coach Beau Baldwin, whose Wildcats are ranked No. 17 in the D2Football.com poll in his first year. “Battles go back as long as we remember. It’s every bit as meaningful to the guys at Western and Central as it is to the guys who compete in the Apple Cup. It’s a big deal.”

The Wildcats from Ellensburg (5-1 overall, 3-1 North Central Conference) have won three of four Battles in Seattle. They beat the Vikings from Bellingham (2-4, 1-4) 42-28 last season. Western won its only Battle in Seattle in 2004. Since the rivalry began in 1922, Central leads the series 60-33-4.

Since last year, when both teams moved from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference to the tougher NCC, the winner of this game also earns the Cascade Cup. In GNAC, the schools used to play twice in a season.

“It’s not like we’ll play again in the next few weeks,” Robin Ross, in his second year as Western’s coach, said about playing once a year. “It’s a one-shot deal.”

Despite the teams being on different ends of the NCC standings — the Wildcats are tied for third, the Vikings tied for seventh — the game is expected to be, well, a battle.

“It’s going to be a war,” said Baldwin. “They’re a real good football team. Their record is really skewed. They’ve played as tough of a D-II schedule as anyone. They’re a much better football team than their record shows.”

Central defensive back Chris Hemphill, a senior transfer from Washington, says the Wildcats can’t have a letdown.

“Their record doesn’t reflect their talent,” Hemphill, one of five former Huskies playing for Central, said of Western. “We have to bring the same intensity.”

In addition to the rivalry, playing at the Seahawks’ Qwest Field and coming back to a city many players on both rosters consider home has added excitement for the showdown.

“If someone went to Western, we don’t like them,” joked Wildcats senior receiver Chris Rohrbach, who went to Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood and also walked on at UW. “Being a local guy, I’m excited to come home.”

Central is an offensive powerhouse that averages 467 yards and nearly 40 points. The Wildcats are led by junior quarterback Mike Reilly, a Washington State transfer who has passed for 1,771 yards, 19 touchdowns and one interception. Johnny Lopez, a former Kennedy of Burien standout, has 626 rushing yards.

Western counters with junior quarterback Adam Perry (1,255 yards, six TDs) and sophomore running back Craig Garner (538 yards, five TDs).

Senior linebacker Shane Simmons, a Kentlake grad, is an All-America candidate, but Western’s defense is the NCC’s worst — giving up 31.7 points and 453.2 yards per game.

More than 11,000 people attended the game last year, far more than either team would draw at home. The first Battle in Seattle in 2003 drew 16,392 fans, a record for a non-NCAA Division I game in the state.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Baldwin. “It’s a great experience to these guys who aren’t used to playing in stadiums this large. It’s a neat atmosphere. I love the whole concept of it.”