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John Blanchette: Whitworth Pirates blend spare parts into smooth machine

Reason No. 672 to love Division III athletics: no recruiting gurus and star ratings.

Keegan Shea has a decent chance of making it to the medal podium for the Whitworth Pirates this weekend at the NCAA’s track meet for universities that haven’t lost their minds on $60 million locker rooms.

His skills in the sport were not in great demand coming out of Central Valley High School. He wasn’t a 5-star, or a 4-star.

He was rated a goldbrick.

By his parents.

Just kidding. Sort of.

“They always make the joke that track was the sport I did so I didn’t have to get a job my senior year,” Shea said. “That was the rule – as long as I was playing sports, I didn’t have to work.”

Hey, if you’re building a team, why not do it around a guy with a built-in antipathy for asking, “You want fries with that?”

His current avocation may have originally been an afterthought, but in that respect Shea fits right in with the group the Pirates have shipped off to Delaware, Ohio, for the D-3 nationals. Among men’s teams, Whitworth’s average finish over the past seven years is 12th out of the 280-some that offer the sport, and that’s reachable again. The women could crack the top 20.

Consider that the four area Division I programs combined don’t have a single athlete with a mark among the first dozen in their events nationally, and you might conclude they’re looking for points in all the wrong places.

Here’s how the Pirates do it:

Joe Green, who has twice increased the school pole vault record this spring and sits third nationally, languished unfulfilled on Whitworth’s football team for two years. But not for lack of confidence. Last summer, he sold encyclopedias. In Texas.

Having moved eight times as a military kid and juggled soccer games and track meets on the same days as a high school senior in Georgia, Will Wren can be tough for Whitworth coach Toby Schwarz to pin down. A year ago, he was an all-league defender for the Pirates. Now he’s made the national cut at 800 meters by dropping his best time 5 seconds in a month.

Tyler Coopman came to Schwarz after two years of playing baseball with a notion to throw the javelin. The Pirates made decathletes out of Stephen Cooper, a high school distance runner, and Peter Delap, a triple jumper plagued with shin splints. Dakota Kliamovich and Kerry Wright are title contenders in the women’s hammer and javelin after having transferred from Cornell and Portland State.

Not exactly the Statue of Liberty All-Stars – tired, poor, huddled masses – but track isn’t run on a straight line.

“In football, even at this level, you’re not going to take a kid who’s never played and make him an All-American,” Schwarz said. “But in track you can.”

Like Shea, who owns D-3’s No. 7 seasonal mark in the hammer and would like to take the school record over 200 feet this week.

His game was baseball, until the fun petered out. Then he blossomed enough to be recruited by a handful of small colleges – including Whitworth – for football. He got talked into running the sprints at CV as a senior, and then into staying after practice by Valley hammer guru Alan Wardsworth.

“I like how it’s a little dangerous,” he said. “It forces you to be uncomfortable.”

But that’s Shea in a nutshell.

For a team competition last year, one group of Pirates made a talent-show video showing members juggling and singing – and a time-lapse clip of Shea arguing friends into submission above the legend, “Political discussion.”

When boredom sets in on road trips, Schwarz will ask, “Keegan, what do you think about …” and he’ll still be holding forth from the back of the van when the topic has long since changed in the front seat.

He’s already asked to do his history student teaching next year at Rogers, where he senses “a need for young men, especially, who can be a positive influence.”

“I’m from Spokane,” he said. “I know all the jokes we used to make about Rogers. I’d like to change that.”

He’s also saved one fitness-and-wellness credit to complete so he can come back and play for new Whitworth football coach Rod Sandberg after, like Green, he’d left it behind for two years, “grieved and moved on.”

At big-time football programs, they’re taking union votes. The graduate transfer rule has given major college basketball its own version of free agency. Schools reaching APR targets can’t issue enough press releases to congratulate themselves for doing what they’re supposed to be doing, while those that flopped academically try to blame it on nonsense like “conference upheaval.”

Division III is always presented as something more idyllic. But there are disenchantments there, too, and it can take a couple of tries and a few twists for an athlete to find a safe haven. Maybe success is a byproduct of that, and not a bonus.

“I never expected the track team to teach me more about what it is to be a teammate than any other sport,” Shea said.

Sounds like a 5-star rating.