When the Whitworth Pirates held their final scrimmage last Friday, the team had almost as many starters on the sidelines as they did banging against each other on the field.
But coach Rod Sandberg said most of those players, except starting linebacker Luke Peterson, are expected to play Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Pine Bowl when the Pirates open the season against Whittier.
“We were pretty banged up. But we are pretty good going into this week,” Sandberg said. “If you are not excited for the first game, you should not be in this business.”
The Pirates, who finished 6-4 in 2014, start Year 2 under Sandberg. A roster full of freshmen contributors last year has given way to upper classmen as the team settles in to the high-octane offense coached by coordinator Alan Stanfield and the attacking 3-4 defense coached by Adam Richbart.
“It’s just so much more fun because you are not grinding out the basic details,” Sandberg said. “Now we are adding the little things that can make a big difference. The kids are hungry. It’s fun to be around kids who want to be coached.”
The Pirates will start Ian Kolste at quarterback, who won a competition with junior Jonah Koski, who transferred to Whitworth in January from St. Thomas (Minnesota).
Kolste had earned the starting job last year before he hurt his shoulder late in the 30-17 win over Whittier and missed the rest of the season. Kolste got his season restored and the sophomore from Oak Harbor, Washington, has returned healthy to a team that tied for the nation’s lead last year with 368.1 passing yards per game.
“He won the job,” Sandberg said of Kolste. “We feel very confident in both and we could win with both of them. But Ian is the guy we’ll go with in Game 1.”
The Pirates lost its top two receiving threats to graduation but return sophomore Nick Kiourkas (Shadle Park), senior Anthony Fullman and Zack Fairhart.
Sandberg said sophomores Garrett McKay, who earned a starting job as a freshman, and Chase Takaki will also see plenty of playing time after missing most of last year due to injuries.
One of the biggest surprises has been the rise of Kevin Thomas (Gonzaga Prep), who has embraced the chance to catch passes after serving as a backup quarterback.
“He has been spectacular,” Sandberg said of Thomas. “We think he is poised to have a great year.”
The team also returns four starters on the offensive line, including massive tackle Kyle Cosby (University High), which should provide the quarterbacks even more time to pick apart opposing defenses.
The Pirates also return starting tailbacks Duke DeGaetano and Griffin Hare (Gonzaga Prep), who missed most of 2014 with an ankle injury.
Stanfield “is really excited,” Sandberg said. “He’s got a lot of dynamic playmakers and improved offensive line, which helps those quarterbacks to relax and run the offense.”
On defense, the Pirates return eight starters, including senior defensive end Danny Welstad and sophomore outside linebacker JT Phelan (East Valley), who led the team with 64 tackles last year as a freshman.
In the backfield, the Pirates welcome back senior De’ Hall, who missed most of last season with an injury, and Taylor Roelofs at cornerback. Returning starter Kelvin Mackey returns as strong safety and Caleb Mathena and Benjamin Stockdale will both see time at the other safety position, Sandberg said.
The biggest preseason blow was the loss of Peterson, who was expected to start at one of the inside linebacker positions opposite Alex Myrick. Sandberg said sophomore Patch Kulp and senior Justin Maxwell will rotate in place of Peterson, who hurt a knee.
“I’m excited to see the 2015 team play for the first time to see what the players are capable of,” Sandberg said. “It doesn’t matter who we are playing. If we do what we are supposed to do, good things happen.”
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