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Sports >  Whitworth

‘I felt a connection right away:’ Division II transfer Riley Morrison has found the perfect fit catching passes at D-III Whitworth

Oct. 6, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:29 p.m.

Riley Morrison has been a big addition to Whitworth’s receiving corps this fall with a team-leading 24 catches.  (Caleb Flegel/Courtesy of Whitworth athletics)
Riley Morrison has been a big addition to Whitworth’s receiving corps this fall with a team-leading 24 catches. (Caleb Flegel/Courtesy of Whitworth athletics)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

The ever-accelerating player migration in college football has its own trickle-down – or up – economics.

A transfer looking for increased playing time is obliged to consider a drop down – FBS to FCS, Division II to III. An all-conference performer looking for a new home or a better test for himself, meanwhile, figures to be trading up.

But sometimes supply and demand have their own ideas.

Take the case of Riley Morrison and his new home with the Whitworth Pirates, who celebrate homecoming on Saturday against Linfield, ranked No. 7 nationally and the scourge of Northwest Conference football.

Morrison isn’t just the newest addition to the Pirates’ deep and talented group of wide receivers, eight of whom had catches in a 66-28 romp past Lewis & Clark last weekend. His 24 catches lining up in the slot lead the team.

“I think in conference play, we’ll show everyone we’re a team that can put up 40-50 points a game,” Morrison said.

And yet he’s actually behind his catch pace of 2021 as a first-year player at Simon Fraser – an NCAA Division II program in British Columbia.

In fact, Morrison was a first-team All-Greater Northwest Athletic Conference selection.

So what’s he doing at Division III Whitworth?

Rediscovering the joy, you might say.

Heading across the border after graduating from Bothell High School, Morrison saw the head coach who recruited him leave for an analyst’s job at Washington, then had his freshman year wiped out by the COVID-19 epidemic. A 1-7 slog followed in 2021 – the Red Leafs, as they’re now known, being outscored 347-54 in those losses.

“Getting beat 70-0 and being on the short end of the stick of so many games like that was really hard on me,” he said, “and even my family in the stands. You get to feeling pretty helpless.”

But football has long been a struggle at Simon Fraser, where there hasn’t been a winning season since 2008 and just three victories since 2014. The pandemic and border restrictions only exacerbated the issues. This year, the Red Leafs are playing four home games in Blaine, Washington.

“I wanted to give it a season after the coaching change,” Morrison explained. “But I felt it was very unorganized and we were going into games unprepared. So I started looking for a new home.”

It just so happened that someone had left a blueprint.

Like Morrison, Solomon Hines had spent two years at SFU, leading the team in rushing in 2019. Like Morrison, he’d been a GNAC all-star. And like Morrison, he felt that the school and program “wasn’t giving me what I wanted.”

So he and Whitworth found each other, and as with Morrison, his impact was instant – he rushed for a team-leading 564 yards last year. He also set the school’s record for 60 meters during the indoor track season.

“It’s unique that guys who had individual success at a higher level find their way here,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “But with a coaching change and the border restrictions and other factors, I’m sure it was a tough situation. Without those, maybe they’re still there.”

Or maybe not. Maybe it just took some time for them to see what a Whitworth can offer is what they wanted all along.

Surely that was the case for Hines, who admitted that as a high schooler “my whole mindset was to go Division I or nothing.” He even spent time at Bethune-Cookman where his high school academic performance kept him sidelined before transferring to SFU.

“It took awhile to accept going down a level to play football,” he said of his transfer to Whitworth. “But I realized that I’m not in it for a scholarship check. I’m doing sports I love to do, and I’m doing it at a place that’s accepting and welcoming.”

Morrison felt that pull, too.

“It’s a small school that takes football seriously,” he said, “but everyone is genuine, guys took me in and I felt a connection right away.”

Even here in the Portal Age, Whitworth is hardly Transfer U. Sandberg figured the Pirates “might get two or three a year,” but noted this year saw an uptick. Mead graduate Ryan Blair has become the starter at quarterback after bouncing back from Western Oregon. Running back Ryan Black, pursued heavily by the Pirates out of high school, tried the junior college route to get to the Division I level, but a frustrating experience in California lured him back. Safety Caden Keithly and receiver Michael Workman, Blair’s favorite target during their days at Mead, came from Idaho.

And Sandberg saw how the upper crust of Division III lives during his time on the committee that helps stage the national championship games.

“Some of those rosters are loaded with drop-downs,” he said. “When we played Saint John’s in 2018 in the playoffs, their quarterback was a Penn State transfer. The school I left nine years ago (Wheaton) to come here was top five in the country last year and they had a dozen transfers, several from D-I programs.”

But the big-time isn’t always a good time.

“I got recruited a little bit by Whitworth out of high school,” Morrison said, “but I didn’t give them too strong consideration. Looking back, I probably should have.”

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