Whitworth football players gathered in the Robinson Teaching Theater inside Weyerhaeuser Hall, chiming in with the countdown clock leading into the NCAA Division III playoff selection show Sunday.
“Seven, six, five,” they shouted in unison. The show started right on schedule with several Pirates recording video of it on their phones. A few minutes later, Whitworth’s name appeared on the big screen, greeted by cheers, applause and a standing ovation.
No. 25 Whitworth (9-1), awarded an at-large berth, will visit second-ranked Linfield (10-0) at noon Saturday. The Northwest Conference champion Wildcats handed Whitworth its only loss, 52-10, on Oct. 24 in McMinnville. The winner advances to face the Cortland State/Salisbury victor in the second round.
“I was sitting next to (receiver) Anthony Fullman. He was injured this whole season,” said junior running back Duke DeGaetano. “This is his senior season, a chance for him to get to play, I looked into his eyes and he had tears in his eyes. It’s really special for all of us.”
Added senior defensive end Danny Welstad: “To know we get to go out one more time with our best friends and our family, it’s just a great experience.”
And a first experience for these Pirates, who capped a 9-1 season with a rout over Lewis & Clark on Saturday. Whitworth hasn’t been to the playoffs since an 11-1 campaign ended in the 2006 quarterfinals, the deepest run in program history. The following season, Whitworth (8-2, 6-0) won the Northwest Conference but the conference didn’t have an automatic berth at the time. The Pirates were passed over by the selection committee.
Second-year head coach Rod Sandberg had already been informed of the pairings, allowing him to soak in his players’ reactions during the show.
“I’m pumped,” said Sandberg, who made five trips to the playoffs during 11 seasons as defensive coordinator at Wheaton (Illinois) College. “These guys have worked so hard, poured so much into this. I’m just really pleased they get the opportunity to continue to play.”
Whitworth received one of six Pool C at-large berths in the 32-team field. At-large criteria include Division III win-loss percentage, strength of schedule, results against regionally ranked opponents, as well as financial considerations as it relates to air/bus travel.
The Pirates’ nine wins came by an average of 19.9 points. Their 20-16 victory over Willamette was the only outcome closer than 17 points.
“Statistically, we’ve done some good things and I think they look at that,” Sandberg said. “I think they look at your loss and our loss was to a No. 1 seed (in their eight-team section). We have one quality win, (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion) La Verne, and we were up 39 on them.”
The Pirates will get another chance against Linfield, which has won a record seven straight Northwest Conference titles and captured the 2004 national championship.
“Linfield is a really good team but like Coach said, it’s hard to beat a good team twice,” Welstad said. “We love playing them, we love the atmosphere, we love the opportunity to succeed against a great opponent.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.