With less than 2 minutes to go before halftime on Saturday, the Whitworth football team started a drive on Saint John’s half of the field, trailing 21-17.
But a three-and-out, followed by a 47-yard punt return, gave the Johnnies the chance to convert one more score before halftime. They did, and what could have been a Pirates lead became a 28-17 deficit. Whitworth mustered one touchdown after the half, losing 45-24 in the second round of the Division III playoffs.
“Painful,” fifth-year coach Rod Sandberg said after returning to Spokane. “We wanted to win, and we thought we could win. We didn’t make some plays when we needed to.”
The Pirates’ season is over, but it was by many metrics one of the best in program history: a 10-1 record and a playoff victory, feats accomplished by only this and the 2006 Whitworth team. Whitworth also broke Linfield’s hold on the Northwest Conference, winning a conference title for the first time since 2007.
With seven returning regular starters on defense, plus quarterback Leif Ericksen back for his senior year, the Pirates are poised to compete for the NWC championship again next season.
The Pirates will lose a number of seniors – about 20 are expected to graduate in the spring – who finished their careers 35-7, the best run of success by any Whitworth class in more than 50 years. That includes wide receiver Garrett McKay, who finished the season with 88 receptions for 1,003 yards. He wraps up his career as Whitworth’s all-time leader in both categories (270 for 3,100).
Whitworth also will need to replace both starting offensive tackles (Tyler Adamson on the left, Jacob Hubbard on the right), running back Mason Elms (1,020 yards from scrimmage this season) and defensive end Chad Wilburg, who earned NWC co-defensive player of the year honors after a 13-sack season.
“Just a great group of guys who were selfless, servant leaders, and left a legacy, and really a standard for these classes who are going to follow and really showed us the way,” Sandberg said of the seniors. “I’ve thought about our program … you get a taste for this, you want more of it.”
But aside from Wilburg, the defense should remain largely intact. The team will have its four leading tacklers back, including a trio of starting linebackers in Kale Wong, Jaylen Gonzales and Iain Black.
The Pirates will also return cornerback Colten Chelin, the NWC Freshman of the Year, junior free safety Zach Hillman, and junior defensive end Andrew McCoy, whose 6.5 sacks were second on the team.
The Pirates have more production to replace on offense. Most glaringly, they need to establish two new starting tackles. The 6-foot-5, 292-pound Adamson, three times named to the NWC’s first team, started 31 career games. After starting two years at center, Hubbard shifted to right tackle this season and was also named to the NWC first team.
They will also need to account for McKay and Elms, who together had 2,013 yards from scrimmage.
But they should have Ericksen back behind center. In his first year as the full-time starter he threw for 2,933 yards, 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions, earning first-team all-conference honors.
Coaches are allowed little contact with players during the offseason. Sandberg and his coaching staff gave the players direction, but they are on their own for workouts and activities until spring ball.
Sandberg said he has confidence in the team’s leaders to get done what needs to be done in the offseason:
“We’ve got a program where our guys want to be great.”
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