Here’s a word that hasn’t been said by anyone from the Whitworth College football team since John F. Kennedy was elected president.
Enter wide receiver and kicker Matt Stueckle, child of the Clinton era, full of boyish exuberance and renewed optimism.
“I think this team, if we keep playing like we know how, we could go to the playoffs this year,” Stueckle said.
The last and only time the Pirates qualified into the postseason was 1960. They lost to Humboldt State 13-6 in the first round.
But two straight wins and a 2-2 start (1-0 NCIC) has the former Lewis and Clark High player thinking - and talking - big.
Pirates third-year coach John Tully is a bit more careful with his words.
“The only thing I speak of is for them to give a great effort in practice and that will hopefully carry over. I think we’ve improved each week and hopefully we can improve this week,” said Tully, whose team plays host to Linfield College in Saturday’s homecoming game.
Stueckle, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound sophomore, has made major contributions to Whitworth’s success.
As a punter, he’s leading the Northwest Conference, averaging 37.9 yards a punt in 24 kicks. His longest punt was 65 yards. The majority of his punts land inside the end zone. He also has two kicks that stopped inside the 5-yard line.
In points after touchdowns, Stueckle is a perfect 12 for 12. He hasn’t had a field goal attempt this year, but Tully said he wouldn’t hesitate to use him from 45 yards and in.
In high school, Stueckle recalled kicking a 43-yard field goal against Shadle Park his junior year. In college practices, he’s nailed 55 to 60 yarders.
“When I was smaller, my parents had me play soccer. So when the coach started coming around to ask if I could kick, well, I can kick.” Stueckle explained.
But he considers himself a receiver.
In four games this season, Stueckle has 10 receptions for 155 yards, second to Ivan Gustafson’s 10 catches for 228 yards. Stueckle has three TD receptions and has scored 30 of the team’s 84 points.
“He’s got great hands and has the ability to get open,” Tully said. “And he’s got pretty good speed. The big key is he’s a year older.”
Stueckle, a physical education major, said he decided on Whitworth because he wanted to be near home. His father, Arnie, also played on the Bucs’ football team.
As a freshman, Stueckle had nine catches for 154 yards. He tied the team in TD receptions with three.
Not bad numbers for a team that won one game last year.
“This year, I think a lot of it is attitude,” Stueckle said. “We were sick of losing. A lot of teams came in and thought, ‘Oh, it’s just Whitworth.”’
On the last game of the ‘96 season, Linfield came away with a 40-20 win over Whitworth in McMinnville, Ore. The Wildcats lead the series 16-3-2.
Linfield, NAIA Division II champion in 1982, 1984 and 1986, is coming off a 5-4 season. The team has had 41 consecutive winning seasons, one short of the national record shared by Notre Dame and Harvard.
This season, the Cats are off to a 1-2 start with a win against Southern Oregon and back-to-back losses to Western Oregon and Western Washington.
Junior quarterback Brian Higgins is 44 of 98 in passing for 661 yards and two TDs. Damian Putney leads the Bucs in rushing with 238 yards on 76 carries and four touchdowns.
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