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Football is in the air as Whitworth Pirates open camp

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 15, 2019

Linebacker Kale Wong participates in a tackling drill. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Linebacker Kale Wong participates in a tackling drill. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Whitworth football team took to the practice field on Thursday to open fall camp, bearing a swagger not just from winning a playoff game a year ago, but from something simpler.

Fresh air.

Last year, the Pirates opened their camp not on a football field, but on a court, inside the tennis bubble next to the Fieldhouse.

So to be outside, wearing helmets for the first time since November, with no smoke to push them indoors, players were happy.

“It’s just nice to hit the ground running with the guys, being out here,” said senior linebacker Kale Wong. “We’ve been inside the tennis bubble, not really doing anything, just kind of like a walk-through. It’s not that fun, and it’s pretty crowded.”

The Pirates went 10-1 last season, winning the Northwest Conference and then a playoff game before losing to St. John’s in the second round.

That finish helped earn them the 11th spot in this year’s preseason poll, one spot above conference rival Linfield. Wong also was named to the third-team defense on the preseason All-America list.

But none of that was particularly relevant to Whitworth players.

“We don’t look much in the rankings because we don’t think they’re too accurate, and we play with a chip on our shoulder no matter where we’re ranked,” said senior receiver Taylor Hall.

Wong saw it the same way.

“It’s human nature for anybody to be satisfied after you hit a peak level, a championship season,” Wong said. “We have an identity where we’re the champs, but you gotta train like you’re the underdogs.”

The Pirates return a number of key players off that playoff team a year ago, including senior quarterback Leif Ericksen and three starters along the offensive line.

Their three starting linebackers – junior Jaylen Gonzalez, senior Iain Black and Wong – will again anchor a defense that allowed 16.5 points per game a year ago, third best in the NWC. They will also return senior safety Zach Hillman.

But the defense will be replacing safety Shai Pulawa as well as defensive end Chad Wilburg, and the offense needs to fill the void left by Garrett McKay, who left as the program leader in receptions and receiving yards.

“Garrett was a special player and he’ll be missed,” Ericksen said. “There are gonna be a couple guys who take his role and his targets.”

Two new coaches were on the field Thursday, though neither was particularly unfamiliar. Wilburg, the NWC’s co-defensive player of the year last season, stayed with the program as the Pirates’ defensive line coach.

Duke DeGaetano, now the team’s defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator, was a two-year captain for the Pirates and a three-year starter at running back. He graduated in 2017.

Aside from those two, the rest of the coaches were at Whitworth last year, including seven who are now entering their second season on staff.

“It’s nice because you don’t have to build a new relationship each year,” said Hall, whose position coach is former Whitworth quarterback Ian Kolste. “You can just build onto it. And we’re comfortable asking questions in meetings, and we’re comfortable getting coached.”

Once again, the Pirates’ schedule is relatively short. They have just two non-conference games – at La Verne on Sept. 7 and at Chapman (Calif.) on Sept. 21 – and don’t play at home until two weeks after that, on Oct. 5, against conference foe Willamette.

That leaves plenty of practice time, and for now, at least, they get to do so in the sunshine, and they don’t have any planned trips to Colfax, where they drove once last year just so they could practice outside.

Under the sun, Ericksen said he definitely sensed a championship vibe among his teammates.

“I think there’s a little bit of swagger to us that we didn’t have fully at this time last year, but there’s still a sense of hunger,” Ericksen said. “I think guys are very proud of what we did last year, but this is a brand new year.”

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