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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Whitworth football falls to Saint John’s in second round of Division III playoffs

Whitworth’s  Jayden Jira carries the pirate flag before the Pirates’ first-round playoff game earlier this month. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Frank Rajkowski For The Spokesman-Review

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – It was an impressive season for senior wide receiver Garrett McKay and his Whitworth teammates.

There will be time to reflect on all those milestones later.

On Saturday, though, there was only disappointment in the aftermath of a 45-24 loss to Saint John’s in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at Clemens Stadium.

The Pirates – ranked No. 10 in the final Division III national poll of the regular season – ended their season at 10-1. The Johnnies – ranked No. 3 – advance to meet No. 2-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) in the quarterfinals next week. Both teams are 12-0.

“We didn’t come here to win any moral victories,” said McKay, who finished with 13 catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns in the final game of his record-breaking career.

“And we didn’t come here to play them close. We came here expecting to win. So we’re going to have to let this defeat sink in a little bit. And it’s a feeling I’m sure the guys who are coming back next year are going to think back on.”

Still, there was much to be proud of.

Whitworth advanced to the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2006 (a season that also ended with a loss to Saint John’s), beat Northwest Conference rival Linfield for the first time since 2007 and the 15-game winning streak (counting the final five games of the regular season last year) that came to an end Saturday was the second longest in school history.

“A lot of the guys in our locker room are hurting right now,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said.

“And if they weren’t hurting after a game like this, that would probably be a bad thing. But I’m really proud of them. They’ve set a standard for Whitworth football – when it comes to what we are and what we’re capable of – that the guys who come after them are going to be able to follow.”

Sandberg’s team held its own against the Johnnies, especially in the first half when the Pirates boasted a huge edge in time of possession – 21 minutes, 1 second to 8:59.

Junior quarterback Leif Ericksen threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns, including 175 yards and two touchdowns in the first two quarters.

But the Whitworth defense – which entered the game ranked first in the nation in tackles for loss – could not find a way to slow down Johnnies quarterback Jackson Erdmann and the Saint John’s passing attack.

Erdmann – who redshirted at Penn State in 2015 before transferring back to his home state of Minnesota – finished 20-of-34 passing for 305 yards and five touchdowns.

“He’s good,” Pirates junior linebacker Kale Wong said. “He’s a gunslinger quarterback and he’s a smart player. We knew coming in he was going to be tough.”

Erdmann and the Johnnies scored on their first three first-half possessions. Whitworth managed to cut the gap to 21-17 when Ericksen connected with senior Mason Elms on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 1:58 left before halftime.

The Pirates forced Saint John’s to punt after three plays on a drive that ran 20 seconds off the clock. But Whitworth didn’t record a first down and had to punt the ball away.

That’s when the game turned for good.

Senior Max Jackson returned the punt 47 yards to put the Johnnies at the Pirates’ 39 with 26 seconds remaining. Two plays later, Erdmann found senior Will Gillach on a 4-yard touchdown pass that put Saint John’s on top 28-17 at halftime.

“We’d gone 3-and-out and we were pretty frustrated,” Erdmann said. “But then the defense made a stop and Max had a great punt return to set us up for a score. That was just a huge momentum swing right there.”

Whitworth didn’t score again until McKay hauled in a 6-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in the game to cap a drive in which he became the school’s all-time leader in receiving yardage.

By then, the Johnnies had long since put things out of reach. The defensive line did a much better job applying pressure on Ericksen in the final two quarters.

“They’re a great team and they have some great players,” Sandberg said. “If you make mistakes against them, or you give them an inch, they’re going to take advantage.”

And so Whitworth’s memorable season came to a close.

But even McKay acknowledged there will be much to look back on fondly when the sting of Saturday’s loss dissipates.

“In a way, we’re trailblazers, and hopefully the guys coming back can build on this,” he said.