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Whitworth knows never to relax against Willamette in long football rivalry

Willamette never makes things simple.

Over the last three seasons, head coach Rod Sandberg has found that Whitworth’s second-longest rival usually saves its toughest battles for the Pirates.

In his first season with the Pirates in 2014, Sandberg was faced with the task of bringing the Pirates back to winning form after they finished the 2013 season with a 4-6 record.

In that season, the Pirates struggled to get the best of Willamette in a back-and-forth game that was deadlocked at 28 midway through the game before the Pirates pulled away with a 61-45 victory.

“That was our signature win at homecoming. We finished 6-4 and that win really flipped our season,” Sandberg said. “That was huge. I’ll never forget that win.”

The following year, Willamette increased the intensity.

The Pirates traveled to Salem, Oregon, where they battled the Bearcats in the middle of a monsoon. The weather made it difficult for the Pirates to execute the usual passing game behind quarterback Ian Kolste.

“We had to get out of ourselves and run the ball,” Sandberg said.

It was a brawl to the final play, but the Pirates managed to hold onto a 20-16 win after Kolste ran the naked bootleg, a play he had never attempted in a Pirates uniform. The run got a first down that helped the Pirates run out the clock to seal the second consecutive win over Willamette.

Last season’s showing wasn’t much different. The Bearcats pulled within six points of Whitworth in attempt to upset the Pirates on their homecoming weekend. But the Pirates pulled away with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to end with a 34-14 victory.

“I was told before I got here it was always a brawl,” Sandberg said. “It didn’t matter the records. Willamette and Whitworth was always going to be a really good game.”

Willamette could have a similar hunger on Saturday when they take on the Pirates at the Pine Bowl in the season finale for both teams.

The Bearcats (0-8, 0-6 Northwest Conference) are looking to avoid their first winless season in the school’s football history, which dates to 1894.

This season, the Bearcats are struggling on the ground – averaging 141 yards – and in their passing game (185 yards per game). The Bearcats are still developing a young leader, sophomore quarterback Matthew Castaneda, who has completed 57.4 percent of his passes this season for 1,126 yards and six touchdowns.

Sandberg said the Pirates’ biggest challenge against Willamette, which leads the overall series 33-21, will be staying out of their own heads.

“It’s dangerous because our players can think … we can just show up and win. That’s not the case in football,” Sandberg said. “There’s a danger that we relax a little bit.”

Whitworth (7-2, 4-2 NWC) is coming off a strong 48-7 win over Lewis & Clark in Portland last weekend. The Pirates finished with 598 yards of total offense and had no sacks or turnovers.

Sandberg is looking for an even stronger win on Saturday to send out his seniors with the second-best three-years stretch in school history.

The Pirates will be honoring 20 seniors prior to kickoff, including fifth-year senior Kolste. Sandberg will be sending off his first four-year class since he joined the program three seasons ago.

“Now that we’ve had these four, it’s that much more meaningful to say goodbye to them,” Sandberg said. “There’s a lot, a lot of emotion in this last week.”