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Pirates should pick up where they left off

The swagger is back at Whitworth College, and John Tully couldn’t be happier.

“I think our team is coming into the season feeling they can compete with anybody,” said Tully, the Pirates’ 11th-year head football coach. “And that’s the way we like it to be.”

At the root of the Bucs’ preseason surge of confidence is the fact that 14 starters – seven on each side of the football – return from last year’s 7-2 team that finished 3-2 in the Northwest Conference.

“Obviously, the success we had last season has helped created some momentum heading into the year,” added Tully, whose Pirates are ranked No. 22 among NCAA Division III teams by USA Today Sports Weekly.

Much of the fan focus of this year’s team will be on the skilled positions, and with good reason. Junior quarterback Joel Clark, a second-team all-NWC pick as a sophomore, is coming off a splendid season in which he completed 60.3 percent of this passes for 2,289 yards and 18 touchdowns, while throwing just five interceptions.

The sophomore tandem of Kyle Havercroft and Chris Ahsing, who shared time at running back last fall and accounted for an average of 136.9 rushing yards per game, is also back, along with senior wide receivers Kyle Snell and Mat Johnson and Michael Allan, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior tight end, who was a first-team all-conference pick last year.

Tully is particularly pleased with his situation at quarterback, where senior Zach Henningsen has developed into an outstanding backup to Clark.

“Both of those guys are returning and right now, in practice, they really look outstanding,” said Tully, who coaches the QBs. “They’re throwing the ball well and making good decisions. Joel had a great year last year and he should be even better this year. He’s one of the special players, not only in our conference, but nationally.”

If the Pirates have a weakness offensively, it would seem to be on the offensive line, which lost three starters from last year. Gone are first-team all-conference center Tyler Neely, Chris Stewart and Clark Pauls, a trio of tough, tested veterans who helped make last year’s O-line one of the best in school history.

“That’s going to be a real key to our success, offensively, again this year,” Tully admitted. “Some kids are going to have to step up. The ones who are in there now have played some, but I think a lot of times, the hardest thing to put together on a football team is a solid offensive line.

“So, these guys are going to have to come together, and they’re going to have to come together in a hurry.”

On the defensive side of the football, the Bucs lost starting linebackers Jeremy Scroggins and Daniel Jones, but still expect to be greatly improved over last year, when they allowed an average of 31 points a game.

“Our defense has a chance to be really good,” Tully said. “Our numbers weren’t that good last year, but we had anywhere from five to eight guys who were freshmen playing during the course of most of our games.”

Anchoring this year’s defense line is senior Austin Richard, a 5-11, 250-pound tackle who had a hand in 51 tackles last fall and also picked off a pass. All four secondary starters – junior Nick Kuntz and sophomores Greg Entel, Jay Tully and Ryan Marshall – are also back, giving defensive coordinator Kirk Westre cause for optimism.

And the special team situation, with Cameron Collings back to handle the placekicking and punting chores, is as bright as it has been in recent history.

In Collings, the Bucs have one of the best kickers in the country. The former Mead High School standout was a first-team all-NWC pick as a junior after kicking a league-high seven field goals, including a 53-yarder that was the longest in the conference. And he was selected to the Division III preseason All-America teams of Street & Smith and D3football.com

“He should have just another wonderful year,” Tully said. “We think we’ve got good players on all our special teams just highlighted by Cameron’s kicking.”

The Pirates open their season at home against the University of Redlands (Calif.) on Sept. 10. But the Bucs’ biggest game of the season will come on Oct. 8 when then entertain defending NWC champion and No. 1-ranked Linfield at the Pine Bowl.

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