The Whitworth Pirates kick-start their 2016 football campaign on Sunday as the team tries to match last year’s squad, which made it to the NCAA Division III playoffs, only the third time that had happened since the school started playing football in 1905.
Coach Rod Sandberg said he remains confident that Whitworth’s high-octane offense will again create havoc for division foes because the team returns starting quarterback Ian Kolste, top running backs Duke DeGaetano and Griffin Hare (Gonzaga Prep), and nearly all of the receivers from 2015.
“Every coach in America is excited right now. But there is a lot of reason for optimism,” Sandberg said. “We had a great offseason. These guys busted it. We have leadership and a lot of experience coming back.”
One of the biggest threats will again be junior tight end Nick Kiourkas (Shadle Park), who along with place-kicker Rehn Reiley, were named preseason Division III All-Americans. The team opens its season Sept. 3 at the Pine Bowl against Central (Iowa).
“He’s really good, and he’s had a great summer,” Sandberg said of Kiourkas, who caught 37 passes for 603 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. “We lost our center and our big left tackle. But I think we are all really excited about our offense.”
Kolste, who earned a medical hardship that allowed him a redo of his sophomore season, threw for 2,810 yards and 19 touchdowns in leading Whitworth to a 9-2 record. The only two losses came to perennial power Linfield.
On defense, the Pirates return all-conference defensive end Daniel Portillo, linebackers Dalin McDonnell and Patch Kulp, cornerback Taylor Roelofs and free safety Caleb Mathena.
However, the team lost the services of outside linebacker JT Phelan (East Valley). He was tied for third on the team with 49 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception. But he has chosen to focus only on baseball.
“That is a pretty significant loss,” Sandberg said of Phelan. “I bet he is our leading tackler over the last two years. But, we are supportive of that decision.”
Aaron Powe returns as a fifth-year senior at defensive end and the Bucs return linebacker Luke Peterson, who was lost to injury before last season got started.
Even with Peterson returning, Sandberg said the team remains “a little thin at linebacker.”
50 new players
The answer to open positions could come from the 46 freshman recruits and four transfers, including receiver Chase Naccarato (Mt. Spokane), who transferred from Montana to Whitworth for his final season.
And the best feel-good story is the return of receiver Brett Moser, who did not play last year as he battled cancer.
“If he gets back to where he was, he’s a pretty special player,” Sandberg said of Moser. “With Naccarato, the local kid, coming back, we really really have a talented and deep receiver group. We have two all-conference receivers as backups.
“But, with the way we like to throw the ball, we need to bring in a boatload every year.”
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