Fernando Noriega leans forward into the play, barking out signals to other defensive backs as he waits for the backup Whitworth Pirates quarterback to drop back and throw to a receiver who is about to pay the price for invading his space.
The 22-year-old starting safety, who grew up in the East Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, relishes every snap, every hit, every chance at his “second” senior season. The first senior season ended abruptly last year with a broken ankle in Whitworth’s second game against Whittier.
“It was very important because I’ve been playing since I was little,” Noriega said. “I didn’t want it to end on this note. It means a lot to me playing with my teammates and to finish strong.”
It’s common for student-athletes at major colleges to take graduate courses or extra classes if they have a remaining year of eligibility. But it’s rare for a player with no local ties to return to a Division III school that does not offer sports scholarships, meaning Noriega has to pay his way to play one more year in the Pine Bowl.
“He could have graduated and not come back,” head coach John Tully said of Noriega. “He really wanted to have that last season. We are lucky to have him back. He shows tremendous levels of hard work and discipline in both school and football.”
Tully said he will rely on players like Noriega, who started his junior year in 2011 and two games in 2012 before the injury.
“It’s great to have him at safety because he has so much experience,” Tully said. “The players love him and the coaches love him. The players thought so much of him that they voted him as one of the team captains.”
Noriega (6-foot, 188-pounds) joins fellow (conventional) seniors Liam Brown (5-foot-11, 255-pound offensive lineman from Bend, Ore.); Brodrick Hirai (6-foot-1, 255-pound defensive tackle from Kennewick); and Aaron Cochran (6-foot-1, 224-pound defensive end from Goldendale) as captains on a squad trying to improve on a 7-3 campaign in 2012 that fell just short of earning a playoff bid in the Northwest Conference.
Noriega, whose parents moved to Los Angeles from Mexico, speaks both Spanish and English and translates for his family. He said he’s looking forward to the Sept. 28 game against Chapman, located in Orange, Calif., which should have a group of Whitworth supporters.
“My mom came up once to a game in Spokane,” he said. “But it feels great when I play in California because my whole family goes.”
After high school, Noriega played two years of community college football at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. It was there he met defensive line coach Dave Pomante who recruited Noriega to play his final two years at Whitworth.
“The campus was amazing and the coaches were great,” Noriega said.
“I just kind of fell in love with Whitworth.”
Noriega has already graduated with a degree in kinesiology, which is the study of human movement, and he’s now pursuing a minor in coaching.
“With all the time I put in, I wanted to end with a good year for me and my school,” he said. “Obviously, winning the conference would be ideal and going on to play playoff games.”
|Sep. 7||St. Scholastica||1:30 p.m.|
|Sep. 21||La Verne||1|
|Sep. 28||at Chapman||7|
|Oct. 5||Pacific (Ore.)||1|
|Oct. 11||at Willamette||7|
|Oct. 26||at Puget Sound||1|
|Nov. 9||Pacific Lutheran||1|
|Nov. 16||at Lewis & Clark||Noon|