The Whitworth Pirates football team heads into the winter relishing a season that was marred only by a pair of losses to No. 2-ranked Linfield.
Much of the firepower that led No. 22 Whitworth to only its fifth nine-win season in program history returns, but coach Rod Sandberg is already recruiting a pair of current starters to remain.
Starting left guard Michael Crucioti and center Joe Beattie both have a year of eligibility remaining. However, both are seniors academically. Unlike Division I programs that provide scholarships, both players would have to pay for another year of tuition to step back onto the Pine Bowl.
“If both come back, that’s pretty significant,” Sandberg said. “If not, that’s also significant. We are totally supportive of them going either way. They need some time to make a decision.”
The team loses left tackle Kyle Cosby, an All-Northwest Conference first-teamer, and guard Cameron Coy to graduation, meaning the Pirates may have to replace four of their six best blockers.
“Our biggest concern is the offensive line, which is a place that traditionally has been thin,” he said. “That’s going to be a big point of emphasis in this offseason.”
Sandberg will have coaches Monday in Oregon, Hawaii and Colorado seeking new commitments. The team’s success this year has already started to help attract new prospects.
“A lot of high school coaches reached out to us on the week of the playoff game,” Sandberg said. “It’s sad, but it’s reality: Everyone wants to be a part of something successful.
“But it doesn’t matter who gives you attention or visits, it depends on who decides they want to be a Pirate.”
Ship full of Pirates
Depending on what Crucioti and Beattie decide, the team would otherwise lose four starters on offense, seven from defense and punter Robert Thullen.
But the Pirates return starting quarterback Ian Kolste, who got left out of conference recognition despite passing for 255.5 yards a game (second-best in NWC) and 19 touchdowns (fourth-best). Kolste also ran for six touchdowns (fifth-best).
“I think he’s really motivated” after the snub, Sandberg said. “I think he’s just a great player and a great competitor. Anytime you return your starting quarterback, that’s a huge positive.”
Many of Kolste’s top targets return, including tight end Nick Kiourkas (Shadle Park), who was named to the all-conference first team after catching 37 passes for 603 yards and eight touchdowns.
The team also returns running back Duke DeGaetano, who led the team with 105.5 all-purpose yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, Sandberg returns six of his nine top tacklers including defensive end Daniel Portillo, who led the team in tackles for loss with 12 and eight sacks.
Also returning as a senior is outside linebacker Dalin McDonnell, who had 52 tackles and a conference-leading six interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Both Portillo and McDonnell were named to the all-conference first team.
Even without the uncertainty of Cruicioti and Beattie, Sandberg said he is always on the lookout for quality offensive and defensive linemen.
“Those are the hardest to find at any level,” Sandberg said, “especially offensive linemen. We need to bring in numbers and quality.”
The team will also be looking for players to increase team speed and depth.
“I think we are really stacked at receiver. But with our style of offense, you need to bring in four or five every year,” he said. “And we need to bring in a stud running back, and as always … a stud quarterback.”
Sandberg said he wants to bring about 40 new players into the system.
“I think we are way ahead on recruiting. Just by the number of kids who visited games during the season and the level of communication we are able to have is so much greater,” he said. “Recruiting is fun for two reasons: We have a great school to sell and a great program with a lot of success to sell.”
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.