The Whitworth Pirates pillaged every opponent they faced last year, save one monster that continues to bully the program, as it embraces the expectation of becoming the dominant Division III football program in the Northwest.
Behind an emerging defense and the up-tempo, pass-first offense of former Shadle Park coach Alan Stanfield, the Pirates raced to a nine-win season and reached the NCAA Division III playoffs for only the third time in program history.
But the Pirates’ reward for earning an at-large postseason bid was to again face powerhouse Linfield, which earlier had crushed the Bucs 52-10. The playoff result was similar, a 48-10 thrashing.
“Whitworth, as a whole, is about winning Northwest Conference championships,” coach Rod Sandberg said. “We are definitely not there yet. You are not there until you beat them.
“But that’s not where our focus is. Our focus is doing the work to become champions. Then the winning and losing will take care of itself.”
- SEE ALSO: Whitworth Pirates timeline
The Pirates, who enter the season with a preseason ranking of No. 19 and have been picked by coaches to finish second in the league, return virtually all of the scoring punch that averaged 32.1 points per game. But the biggest difference in Year Two of the Sandberg era came on defense.
In 2014, the Pirates gave up just better than 34 points a game. If you take away the 100 points Whitworth surrendered to Linfield last season, the Bucs only gave up about 15 points a game, almost a three-touchdown improvement.
“Defensively, I think two major things happened,” Sandberg said. “That first year, we had to play a lot of young guys, even freshmen. It’s hard to beat good teams in the good league we are in when you have to play a lot of freshmen.”
In addition to full year in the system of defense coordinator Adam Richbart, the defenders got stronger prior to 2015, he said.
“To play Richbart’s defense, you have to play physical,” Sandberg said. The scheme “is a lot more complex than most. Having a second year to learn it makes a massive difference.”
On offense, the Pirates return starting quarterback Ian Kolste, who has so many targets to throw to that Sandberg pointed out that the team may have all-conference-caliber receivers as backups.
But arguably the best of the group is a Spokane kid who has been playing Stanfield’s up-tempo offense for seven years: Nick Kiourkas.
The 6-3, 210-junior tight end from Shadle Park has been named a preseason All-American. While he didn’t have the most catches last season, Kiourkas had the most yards (603) and touchdowns (eight), while averaging 16.3 yards a reception.
“He’s just a rock in the middle,” said Stanfield, who coached Kiourkas at Shadle Park. “He’s one of the fastest, strongest kids we have. He’s a guy you know will catch the tough ones.”
Kiourkas is a tight end in name only. He’s not asked to set the edge on running plays. Mostly, he sneaks through the middle of the defense to force linebackers or safeties to try to cover him.
“For seven years, that’s been my world,” Kiourkas said of Stanfield’s offense. “Just watching practice, it looks complicated. But it’s easy to me.”
In addition to Kolste, the team returns sophomore kicker Rehn Reiley, another preseason All-American, and a long list of receiving threats, including starter Mike McKeown (55 receptions), Garrett McKay (53), Kevin Thomas (Gonzaga Prep, 38) and both leading rushers Duke DeGaetano (800 yards) and Griffin Hare (Gonzaga Prep, 193).
Facing all those offensive threats in practice can only make the defense better, Richbart said.
“He’s a pain in my” behind, Richbart said of Stanfield. “In one sense, it’s great because it stretches us. It’s good for our guys. But, it’s an obvious challenge because we are getting ready to play teams that are very different.”
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