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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Whitworth football travels to Wartburg in D-III playoffs for opportunity at history

By Ethan Myers The Spokesman-Review

Whitworth football is looking to make school history this weekend.

The Pirates (10-0) will travel to Waverly, Iowa, to face off against the Wartburg College Knights (11-0) in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs on Saturday.

Whitworth, which finished the season 18th in the AFCA Division III coaches poll, has never made the third round since joining the NCAA.

“We’re excited,” Pirates quarterback Austin Ewing said. “We have a chance at something no one else has done in Whitworth history … The dudes in the locker room are excited for this experience and this opportunity.”

Whitworth pulled off a string of fourth-quarter comeback victories to close the regular season undefeated and take the Northwest Conference title. Last weekend, in its first postseason appearance since 2018, the Pirates took down Chapman (California) 42-28 in the Pine Bowl, thanks to a four-touchdown performance from senior running back Solo Hines.

Wartburg, the winner of the American Rivers Conference, beat Illinois College 49-14 in the first round.

Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg praised the Pirates’ experience in getting to practice on Thanksgiving and travel across the country to play a formidable opponent.

“Growing up, you watch NFL football on Thanksgiving and you watch all the big schools still playing football, and now that we have this opportunity, it’s just a great experience,” Ewing said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing for us, so we’re taking it all in and knowing that it may never happen again for a lot of us.”

Saturday’s matchup will be the first between Whitworth and Wartburg.

The Knights, ranked third in the AFCA Division III coaches poll, sport a high-caliber offense – averaging nearly 44 points and 460 yards per game – and a stout defense – allowing less than 10 points per game.

Wartburg made the semifinals in the 2022 NCAA Division III tournament and brought back a number of crucial players.

“Well, they have really good players and they’re really-well coached,” Sandberg. “I think the thing that’s unusual is they’re really experienced. They have fifth-year seniors all over that roster. They’re just the most veteran team I think I’ll have ever played.”

Wartburg’s offense is driven by fifth-year senior running back Hunter Clasen, who has eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards – at 6.5 yards per carry – to go with 19 rushing touchdowns. Clasen was named American Rivers Conference MVP.

Knights quarterback Nile McLaughlin, also a fifth-year player, threw for more than 2,700 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions on the season. Owen Grover, a fifth-year linebacker, was selected American Rivers Conference defensive MVP.

“I don’t think we have to do much. I think we just keep them in the moment, realize that they just have to be who they are, then just enjoy the experience,” Sandberg said of the team’s preparation. “We are playing a really good team – that gets you excited. I have a bunch of competitors on my team, so the excitement of competing at a high level, that brings the best out of you.”

Sandberg and Ewing emphasized limiting offensive mistakes while forcing takeaways.

“I think it’s going to take everybody doing their jobs,” Whitworth senior tight end Isaac Fields said. “We talk about it a lot and we’ve had some big moments throughout the year. … Big moments came up and we knew they were going to come up, but when they came up, we were doing nothing but playing football and doing our jobs.

“As the moment keeps getting bigger, we just need more focus on our job and not the external things. I think if we’re able to do that, we’ll be successful.”

The winner will play the winner of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Wheaton.

The Pirates also collected a number of conference awards this week. Ewing, a graduate transfer from Southern Utah, was tabbed NWC Offensive Player of the Year and was one of 10 first-team honorees. Whitworth also had four second-team selections and four honorable mentions.

“It feels great,” Ewing said of the honor. “That’s just a team award. It goes out to all of us, all the hard work we’ve put in. I’m the one who got the award, but I wouldn’t be there in that situation without my (offensive) line, receivers, running backs and tight ends.”

Sandberg was named NWC Coach of the Year for the second time.