The Whitworth Pirates kicked off their 2023 season with the first day of fall camp on Thursday.
The team finished 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Northwest Conference in 2022 to fall short of its goal to win its first NWC title since 2018.
The Pirates hit the practice field with enthusiasm as they opened training camp, and the team’s energy held a strong presence.
The coaches were passionate during drills, and there was no lack of joy for the Whitworth players appearing back on the gridiron with something to prove.
While the first practice is not always a great indicator of what will come in the season, it can be essential to develop camaraderie from the start of training camp. The Whitworth coaching staff is bringing the players together and ensuring the younger players know what to do.
“The first day, we came out with a ton of energy,” senior tight end Isaac Fields said. “If that were an indication of how the season will go, it would be great. I’ve never been on a team here that’s been more hungry, which will be a huge advantage.”
Fields said younger players sometimes struggle to adjust and learning the playbook as a freshman is a challenge. He appreciates being in a leadership position .
“As soon as the seniors do something, that sets the standard for the younger guys,” Fields said. “We show love to the guys, but we have to have good leadership. Leadership is servanthood. Being a servant is the biggest thing I’ve been trying to embrace. It’s super meaningful to have guys looking up to you.”
Head coach Rod Sandberg said his players want to be held accountable and hold themselves to the standard of Whitworth football.
“Our performance last year created a hunger inside of us to get back to who we are,” he said. “They didn’t make excuses. We didn’t have the season we hoped for last season for several reasons, but they took ownership.”
The Pirates feature 27 seniors. Sandberg said the seniors set a high bar and are a great example for everyone else.
“The seniors, they’re on a mission; they want to hold that standard. What might separate us is that hunger and not taking anything for granted,” Sandberg said. “We have to earn it; we want to earn it, and we like it that way. They stay focused on the process, not the result. Our leadership and unity will hold the team together.”
Noah Stifle, a fifth-year senior, is one of three quarterbacks competing for the starting position.
Junior Ryan Blair is the only returner with starting experience, having thrown for 1,191 yards and nine touchdowns before getting injured last season.
The third competing quarterback is senior Austin Ewing, a Division I transfer from Southern Utah.
The quarterback competition is intense, and Sandberg said he appreciates the support the quarterback group has for each other.
“They are each other’s biggest cheerleaders,” Sandberg said. “Our returning starting quarterback isn’t entitled to it, our Division I transfer isn’t entitled to it, our senior quarterback isn’t entitled to it. They’ve got to go out and earn it.”
In the opening practice, Ewing had a sharp arm and seemed best at hitting his targets .
Blair showed off his strong arm but struggled with accuracy. There were a number of impressive passes from Blair, as well as multiple overthrows. Stifle kept himself composed and maintained accuracy throughout the practice.
“I know our two starters are uber-competitors, and as soon as one starts to take it up a notch, the other will follow, so it is nothing but good to have guys that will compete,” Fields said.
After losing several players to graduation last season, particularly within the secondary, Sandberg is confident in his team’s ability to replace missing talent.
Sandberg says the team must improve the running game, and having four returning tailbacks will help that cause. He emphasized his excitement for this team’s depth and talent in the backfield.
“We were not satisfied with our running game last year,” he said. “We’ve tweaked a few things to make that a point of emphasis. We are a run-first, play-action offense. The top four tailbacks are all driven by their competition.”
Sandberg mentioned the Pirates’ toughest challenges will be in weeks 9 and 10 against Linfield and George Fox.
Whitworth opens the regular season on Sept. 9 against Eastern Oregon in La Grande, Oregon, at 1 p.m.
Liam Bradford, of Lakeland High School, is a member of The Spokesman-Review’s Teen Journalism Institute, a paid high school summer internship program funded by Bank of America and Innovia Foundation. As the only paid high school newspaper internship in the nation, it is for local students between the ages of 16 and 18 who work directly with senior editors and reporters in the newsroom. All stories written by these interns can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor. Bradford can be reached at (509) 459-5497 or by email at email@example.com.