For being landlocked, the Northwest Conference gets treated a lot like an island.
While that isolation made the Whitworth football team’s playoff positioning this year somewhat inevitable, it isn’t without intrigue.
The Pirates (9-0) are preparing to host on Saturday the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags (7-3), a team they’ve never faced and the winner of the only Division III football conference besides the NWC that is entirely west of the Rocky Mountains.
The isolation of their conferences – as well as a couple of other key factors – meant that the matchup at the Pine Bowl was one of just a few realistic scenarios in the 32-team bracket released Sunday.
Whitworth wasn’t going to host, for example, Western New England from Springfield, Massachusetts. That’s just too far to travel (beyond the 500-mile bus limit) for a level of athletics that severely restricts the number of flights for which it will pay. CMS is the only team flying for the 16 first-round games.
Another possibility was NWC rival Linfield, which, in its previous six playoff appearances, had hosted Pacific Lutheran (in 2012 and 2013) and Whitworth (in 2015) in the first round.
But Linfield, 8-1 against D-III opponents, didn’t make the field this year, so the Pirates avoided a potential rematch. With the committee opting to keep similarly isolated Hardin-Simmons (which played Linfield in 2016 and 2017 in the first round) in Texas, Whitworth ended up drawing the Stags.
The matchup looks favorable for the Pirates but is not so predictable to coach Rod Sandberg.
“Any week, anything can happen,” Sandberg said. “The team we’re playing is a conference champion. That’s a pretty special thing no matter where you are, so obviously they’re a good football team.”
That unpredictability is a bit like that of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, which stocks its brackets with conference champions from less-heralded conferences and loads it up with a few dozen at-large bids.
But unlike that basketball tournament, D-III football has 26 automatic bids for conference champs – plus the best team from a conference without an automatic bid – and five at-large teams.
“You have 26 teams with zero losses or one loss against Division III competition,” national committee chair Jim Catanzaro said on a d3football.com podcast this week. “Three of those teams did not get in (including Linfield). … With at-large bids being so scarce, that’s just the way it is.”
That places a higher value on a team winning its conference, because being in the top five in regional rankings – as Linfield was in the West – wasn’t enough to get the Wildcats into the playoffs.
“I was on it for four years. I know how much they care, how much they believe in our game and do what’s best for our game,” Sandberg said of the regional and national committees. “Their job is to choose five teams. … It’s a really, really daunting task, but I think they do a great job and try to do their best with what they’re given.”
That creates a bracket – specifically the quadrant where the NWC champ lands – that often has teams without common opponents because there isn’t much crossover between conferences, especially out West. Whitworth has never played a team from the southeast.
Going anywhere outside California gets expensive for Whitworth. Not many teams have the financial resources to fly to road games every year, Sandberg said.
The selection committee has often chosen to keep the SCIAC and NWC teams in the same quadrant of the bracket, and sometimes they face each other in the first round. That happened in 2014, when Chapman traveled to McMinnville, Oregon, to play Linfield, and in 2011, when Linfield hosted Cal Lutheran.
But if the Pirates can get past the Stags, more unique matchups await. They have never faced Martin Luther (New Ulm, Minnesota), and just twice have they faced Saint John’s (Collegeville, Minnesota), which won a second-round game at the Pine Bowl in the 2006 playoffs.
The Pirates would play one of those schools next round. With no common opponents, that potential second-round matchup is harder to handicap, except by looking at the reputations of the programs and, of course, game film.
“Whitworth at Saint John’s, that’s really a wild-card game to me,” Catanzaro said on the podcast. “I’m not sure how good Whitworth is, based on how things looked for Linfield when they beat them in the early part of the season. The Johnnies will have a tough task if that game is played.”
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