WITH A WINNING CULTURE ESTABLISHED, SANDBERG HAS NUMBERS – AND BUY-IN – FOR PIRATES TO TAKE NEXT STEP
Four months after Rod Sandberg was introduced as Whitworth’s head football coach, the former Wheaton College defensive coordinator was met with an offensive line held together by chicken wire.
Graduation and a slew of injuries made the 2014 edition of spring drills an even more arduous task for a new-look staff trying to install a new system.
“We had about five healthy linemen that spring,” Sandberg recalled. “We had a coach playing center.”
Three seasons and a combined 23-8 record later, over 20 brutes littered the offensive line station at a recent practice.
Sandberg, who has now experienced a full four-year recruiting cycle, boasts numbers at every position. Entering a season in which his program is expected to continue its ascent, he points to one intangible.
“We have culture now,” said Sandberg. “We have competition and depth at each position. The seniors have set expectations for the younger kids.”
Thirteen returning starters – eight on offense, five on defense – and skill players such as record-breaking quarterback Ian Kolste and fleet-footed receiver Garrett McKay give Whitworth a nice preseason aesthetic.
Now the Pirates, ranked 28th in the preseason NCAA Division III poll, are ready to take the next step.
“My freshman year we went 6-4, then 9-2 and 8-2 the next two seasons,” senior cornerback LJ Benson said. “Much of that has to do with our coaching and culture. We want to keep ascending, but have to respect our opponent each week.”
One foe is naturally in this team’s consciousness: NCAA III power and Northwest Conference rival Linfield, the one squad to hand the Pirates a conference loss each the last two seasons.
“Linfield is the top dog, but we have to respect every opponent,” Kolste said. “Every week we have to prepare like we’re playing a team like Linfield.”
Kolste led NCAA Division III in passing yards (3,790) and completions (351) a season ago. Couple that with a stable of experienced receivers, including McKay (72 catches, 1,072 yards in 2016), Kevin Thomas (51 catches, 689 yards), Nick Kiourkas (38 catches, 537 yards) and Mike McKeown (33 catches, 286 yards), it’s no secret what offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield’s plans will be.
The quick-trigger quarterback should have time to see plays develop in the pocket, too, with the return of starting right tackle Tyler Adamson (6-4, 255, All-NWC), left tackle Vince Porporato (6-3, 278) and center Jacob Hubbard (6-1, 255).
Whitworth’s biggest offensive void is currently in the backfeld after the graduation of Duke DeGaetano, the NWC’s leading rusher (1,001 yards, 21 TDS) last season.
Moving the ball through the air won’t be a problem for Whitworth, but if it is going to have the offensive balance it wants, senior running back Griffin Hare will need to be healthy.
Hare, a former Gonzaga prep star who has battled injuries throughout his college career, scored eight touchdowns as a freshman. Junior Mason Elms and sophomore Tariq Ellis are also vying for first-team carries.
“We have a lot of speed at the running back and receiver positions,” Sandberg said. “I can’t wait to see how fast we are on (Whitworth’s new artificial) turf.”
Depleted by graduation, Whitworth doesn’t return a single starting defensive lineman.
Conversely, it returns the core of its secondary, including senior corners LJ Benson and Taylor Roelofs and junior safety Ben Stockdale.
In a pass-happy conference, their services will be needed.
“We have a fast and aggressive secondary,” said Benson, an Central Valley High alum who tallied three interceptions last sason. “When camp started one of our freshman said ‘Man, I am glad our defensive backs aren’t a bunch of’ … well, fill in the blank.”
Whitworth lost three All-NWC selections to graduation on a defense that gave up 30 points a contest. Linebackers Patch Culp (70 tackles in 2016) and Connor Tangeman return their respective starting inside and outside spots.
Sandberg believes Andrew Young, a 6-foot-1, 235 pound defensive end, has the ability to step in and lead the inexperienced defensive front.
Rehn Reilly’s foot earned him D3football.com All-Region and first-team all-Nortwest Conference honors in 2016, connecting on 47 of 49 PATS, 7 of 14 field goals and averaging 40 yards a punt.
McKay averaged 20 yards a kick return and 6.3 yards a punt return last season.
Pirates at a glance
2016 record: 8-2 overall, 6-1 Northwest
Rod Sandberg (fourth year, 23-8)
Alan Stanfield (fourth year)
Adam Richbart (fourth year)
Last five seasons
1: Whitworth quarterback Ian Kolste finished the 2016 season ranked first in NCAA Division III passing yards (3,790). With a stable of returning starters at receiver and offensive line, he should be be in the same neighborhood this fall.
10: Years since Whitworth won a Northwest Conference championship. … This number also denotes NWC bully Linfield’s win streak against the Pirates.
13: Starters returning – eight on offense and five on defense – from an 8-2 squad that was essentially two points short of reaching the NCAA playoffs a year ago.
Sept. 2 at Central Iowa, 10 a.m.
Sept. 9 vs. Whittier, 11 a.m.
Sept. 16 vs. La Verne, 11 a.m.
Sept. 30 at Linfield, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. George Fox, 1 p.m.
Oct. 14 at Pacific Lutheran, 1 p.m.
Oct. 21 vs. Puget Sound, 1 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Pacific, 1 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Lewis & Clark, 1 p.m.
Nov. 11 vs. Willamette, 12:30 p.m.
Projected starters for Whitworth
QB: Ian Kolste, 6-1, 202, Sr.
RB: Griffin Hare, 5-11, 192, Sr.
LT: Tyler Adamson, 6-4, 269, Jr.
LG: Tanner Conroy, 6-3, 290, Sr.
C: Jacob Hubbard, 6-1, 264, Jr.
RG: Nick Little, 6-1, 286, So.
RT: Vince Porporato, 6-3, 290, Sr.
WR: Kevin Thomas, 6-3, 200, Sr.
WR: Michael McKeown, 5-11, 182, Sr.
WR: Garrett McKay, 5-9, 175, Jr.
TE: Nick Kiourkas, 6-3, 216, Sr.
DE: Chad Wilburg, 6-3, 223, Jr.
DT: PJ Solomon, 6-1, 268, Jr.
DT: Jack McLeod, 6-0, 262, So.
DE: Andrew McCoy, 6-1, 235, So.
OLB: Kale Wong, 6-1, 192, So.
MLB: Patch Kulp, 6-0, 221, Sr.
OLB: Brian Lee, 5-10, 213, Sr.
CB: Taylor Roelofs, 6-2, 211, Sr
CB: LJ Benson , 5-11, 185, Sr.
RB: Ben Stockdale, 6-2, 198, Jr.
FS: Shai Pulawa , 5-11, 187, Jr.
K: Rehn Reilley, 5-11, 184, Jr.
P: Rehn Reilley, 5-11, 184, Jr.
LS: Andrew Knox, 5-10, 171, Jr.
KR: Chase Takaki, 5-9, 175, Sr.
PR: Brett Moser, 5-10, 168, Jr.
Northwest Conference predictions
1. Linfield Wildcats
2. Whitworth Pirates
3. George Fox Bruins
4. Pacific Lutheran Lutes
5. Pacific Boxers
6. Willamette Bearcats
7. Puget Sound Loggers
8. Lewis & Clark Pioneers