Athletes take it one step at a time. That’s what they say, anyway.
Three years ago, Jack Loofburrow couldn’t even do that.
The former high school basketball star “had lost all my confidence” after two serious left foot injuries at Eastern Washington. He was working at a pizza joint in Cheney and “taking a year off” from everything.
“Sometimes I kind of gave up on myself,” said Loofburrow, who played 14 games at EWU before the second injury.
But two coaches didn’t give up, and Loofburrow has become a key part of a Whitworth team that is poised for a sixth straight run in the Division III national tournament.
“In my heart I didn’t want to give up playing basketball,” recalls Loofburrow, who one day in 2009 checked in with Jack Fitterer, his former coach at Eisenhower of Yakima, where Loofburrow led the Cadets to a 21-4 record as a senior.
Just 30 minutes later he got a call from then-Whitworth coach Jim Hayford. After a short tryout – “I’m sure I didn’t play very well,” Loofburrow recalls – Hayford was convinced.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I want you to find what your best is, and I’m gonna keep you at that level.’ “I’ll always remember that,” says Loofburrow, “and I’ll always be grateful.”
In 2009-10, his first of three seasons at Whitworth, Loofburrow appeared in 27 games as the Pirates reached the Division III Sweet 16. Last year, the 6-foot-8 Loofburrow became an inside presence, averaging six rebounds, second best on the team that reached the Elite Eight.
He was just as comfortable at the top of the key, putting the ball up 159 times from 3-point range and hitting an astounding 46 percent. When the big guy found the net from long range at the Whitworth Fieldhouse, students would tease the ill-prepared opposing bench with chants of “You don’t know Jack!”
Last season, Loofburrow averaged 12 points a game and was an honorable mention All-Northwest Conference selection.
Then Hayford was hired at Eastern Washington – Loofburrow shakes his head at the coincidence – and shock gave way to an “emotional” team meeting.
But new coach Matt Logie made an “instant connection” with the seniors, who included some of Loofburrow’s best friends, on and off the court.
“We were excited about what his abilities meant for us,” said Logie, who endured a coaching change his senior year at Lehigh. “When we sat down with the seniors, we wanted to make their experiences as memorable as possible.”
Memorable, for sure. In early December, Loofburrow felt some pain in his right ankle, but decided to play through it. Then came the Montana Tech game on Dec. 10; Whitworth lost the game along with its 41-game home-court winning streak, the longest in Division III. Suddenly, the fairy tale was fractured.
“It was very frustrating,” said Loofburrow. “Bones are weird. You have to wait for it to heal.”
The wait lasted six weeks, plus two more weeks of getting his timing back and working back into the starting rotation. Finally, on Jan. 28 against Puget Sound, Loofburrow put an exclamation point on his return with a long 3-pointer that put the Pirates up by 14. The crowd went wild.
“Our fans are the greatest,” said Loofburrow, “and those home weekends at the fieldhouse, that’s something I’m really going to miss.”
The next night against Pacific Lutheran, “he was even more effective,” said Logie; Loofburrow scored 21 points and hit 5 of 6 from long range.
This season, Loofburrow is averaging 8.7 points a game, but in the last three he’s averaging 15.7 while hitting 11 of 15 from 3-point range. The Pirates will have the homecourt advantage for the NWC tournament on Thursday and Saturday.
“We just want to win as many games as possible,” said Loofburrow, who will graduate this fall with a degree in business management. “Right now I’m just taking it one step at a time.”
This time he means it.