A final game defeat did little to diminish Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg’s belief that his new program has the foundation for future success.
The Pirates got down 28-7 early last Saturday against Pacific Lutheran, but they staged a comeback in the second half that both ran out of time and failed to find an answer for the Lutes’ running quarterback Dalton Ritchey, whose 47-yard fourth-quarter run sealed the 41-27 victory.
“Our players could have given up, but they came back in the second half and showed heart,” Sandberg said. “We learned a lot in year one: who we are and what we are going to be.”
Sandberg was hired a year ago to replace John Tully, who led the program for the previous 19 years. In his first recruiting cycle, Sandberg brought in more than 50 new players to a team that finished 2014 with a 6-4 overall record and 4-3 in the Northwest Conference.
“We were able to do the most important thing that needed to happen,” he said. “That was to get people to believe, and buy in, and lay the groundwork for the foundation for future success.”
Other than having his first day off since August, Sandberg said his schedule is crammed with team meetings, voting on season awards and sending his coaches to a handful of western states to recruit more players.
“That’s one advantage of our season ending a week earlier,” Sandberg said. “We have some (high school) playoff games we are hosting in Spokane. We have recruits on just about every team.”
Sandberg was just getting hired last December and didn’t hire offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield away from Shadle Park until January. But this year, the Pirates will host a recruit weekend next month.
“We didn’t have that until February last year,” Sandberg said. “Being … further ahead will give us more time to evaluate and find better quality. And, we will be able to show them that this is the place for them.”
Coaches will be sitting down with each returning player to have a frank discussion about the future, he said.
“We will let them know our expectations. We will let them know what they need to do and how we can serve them,” he said. “I will tell the team I am looking for recruits who are better than they are. I hope that inspires them to get better.”
A focus every year will be to find a couple quality quarterback recruits after losing record-setting senior Bryan Peterson (West Valley). In Stanfield’s pass-first system, Peterson became the all-time team leader in completions (688) and attempts (1,081). He also set NCAA Division III records for completions in a game (58), average completions per game (34) and most attempts in a game (82) without an interception.
Sophomore quarterback Ian Kolste went down early in the season with a torn labrum and may not be healthy to start spring drills. That leaves freshman Kevin Thomas (Gonzaga Prep) and Chad McKoy, of Pendleton, Oregon, as the only other quarterbacks on the roster.
“If you’ve got a new guy (at quarterback), it takes time getting that timing and familiarity with the receivers,” he said. “Every year, that position has to be a massive priority. You have to have a great player and great competition and great depth.”
Taylor Roelofs started the year as quarterback, but ended the year as a starting cornerback. It’s a position Sandberg said he wants Roelofs to continue playing.
“I think (Roelofs) could be one of the best corners in our league,” he said.
Roelofs, along with receivers Nick Kiourkas (Shadle Park), Bret Moser; and defenders Jacob Sturtevant and JT Phelan all ended up starting early in their freshman seasons.
“I don’t know how many freshmen and sophomores we started in the last game, but it was a boatload,” Sandberg said. “With the growing pains we had this year, we’ll get those players back and be that much better. And, the expectations will be a little different.”
Sandberg said he hopes to bring in a smaller class of recruits.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel good unless we win them all. I’m just too competitive,” he said. “But I feel great about the culture that was created and the foundation that was laid.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.