The circumstances for Whitworth’s football team have certainly changed in the 452 days since it last played a game, and so has the roster.
In their last game – Nov. 16, 2019, against Pacific – the Pirates started seven seniors on defense. Along their offensive line, they started four, and three of their top receivers have since graduated.
All that time between then and Saturday’s scheduled noon home game against Puget Sound has, at least, given them plenty of time – if not necessarily as many opportunities – to replace them.
“They had a long time since they’ve been to a game week, and it’s been such a challenging, challenging journey to get to this week,” Pirates head coach Rod Sandberg said at practice on Tuesday. “Even today, there’s been lots of challenges. They’ll be ready. Maybe too ready.”
That road to return has been an unusual one, with a fall camp that looked more like spring ball, and a month of winter practices that were interrupted by a 10-day shutdown of in-person team activities, a result of too many COVID-19 positive tests in the program, that ended last Friday.
But Saturday finally presents the Pirates with a chance to line up against someone wearing a different jersey, on what is predicted to be a 20-degree afternoon at the Pine Bowl, in a game that no fans will be allowed to attend.
“We’re excited right now,” junior quarterback Jaedyn Prewitt said. “Saturday can’t come soon enough.”
This is the first of four games on the Pirates schedule, which includes home-and-home series with Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran.
Behind a revamped offensive line, the Pirates expect to start junior tailback Dawson Ruhl, who transferred from Linfield, and Prewitt, who appeared briefly in five games over the past two seasons but has yet to start a game at Whitworth.
Seniors Andrew Meredith, who had 31 catches for a team-high 529 yards last season, and Jerusalem To’oto’o (19 for 287) anchor the receiving corps.
Prewitt has been building rapport with receivers while also learning a new offense under first-year coordinator Ian Kolste, the former Pirates quarterback. All the time between games has given them plenty of time to do so, and it has given some advantage to first-year players who normally would only have a few weeks with the team leading up to their first game.
There are more freshmen (five) than there are seniors (four) on the Whitworth defense’s two-deep.
“To have this extended semester and a half to get to know the freshmen, I feel like they don’t feel like they’re freshmen anymore, but almost as sophomores,” said junior cornerback Colten Chelin, the Northwest Conference Freshman of the Year in 2018.
Puget Sound beat Pacific Lutheran 28-20 last week. Sandberg normally doesn’t like to open a season against a team that has already played, but circumstances this year are obviously different.
There’s also no playoff to aim for this year. These four games will be it.
But with so few Division III teams with even one game on the schedule this year, the Pirates are happy to be playing at all.
“We play because we love the game. We play because we like the challenge,” Sandberg said. “We love the camaraderie, the brotherhood. And what have we been missing for the last eight months of the pandemic? Brotherhood.”
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