In Whitworth football history, the 2006 squad is the gold standard.
That year the Pirates went 10-0 in the regular season before hosting two Division III playoff games. They had an All-America tight end (Michael Allan) and the Northwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Casey Clifton.
“We were balanced both offensively and defensively,” said Jay Tully, a junior linebacker that year. “We had really solid playmakers on both sides of the field.”
They remain the only Pirates team to win a playoff game. But that could change this year.
All that stands between Whitworth (7-0) and a playoff appearance is a win against either of the bottom two teams in the NWC standings: Lewis & Clark on Saturday, or Willamette the week after. One win clinches one of the 26 automatic playoff bids awarded to conference champions.
Two wins would give the Pirates a chance to host at least one playoff game, and maybe two, depending on how the West bracket – Whitworth’s most likely landing spot – is seeded.
The first regional standings were released Wednesday. Whitworth – whose No. 12 ranking in the D3football.com poll is irrelevant in these rankings – stands at No. 3 in the West. In a purely seeded eight-team bracket, the Pirates would be in line for at least one home game.
But that’s not exactly how it works.
The West region – one of the four in D-III football – is composed of seven conferences with teams from as far east as Illinois. The next-closest conference is in California, meaning any non-NWC opponent coming to Spokane would need to fly, and the national committee has a mandate to limit these NCAA-funded flights.
That can conflict with its other goals – like avoiding intraconference matchups – which led to Linfield hosting Whitworth (an at-large team) in 2015.
And it could mean that Linfield, ranked No. 5 in the region, would end up visiting the Pine Bowl again this season.
But again, the national committee tries to create unique pairings in the 32-team playoffs.
The committee isn’t bound to bracket West teams in the West bracket, either. So it’s possible, if unlikely, that Whitworth could be sent far away, or more likely, a top team from a different region could be included in the West bracket.
Which all testifies to how highly the committee thought of the 2006 team, considering both opponents were beyond the 500-mile busing threshold.
After a 27-23 victory over Occidental (California), Whitworth hosted perennial power St. John’s (Minnesota) two days after Thanksgiving.
But dual threat quarterback Joel Clark rolled his ankle the week before, and he was in a boot for most of the week going into that game, Tully said. He wasn’t able to be his normal, mobile self, and St. John’s capitalized in a 21-3 victory.
A year later, the Pirates won the Northwest Conference, which at that time didn’t have enough members to qualify for an automatic bid, and the 8-2 Pirates weren’t selected.
In 2015, when the Pirates made their return to the postseason, they were talented but young under then second-year coach Rod Sandberg.
“That year it seemed like everyone at every skill position was a freshman or sophomore,” said Garrett McKay, then a freshman receiver.
McKay, now a senior, said the difference between playing Linfield in Week 7 and playing Linfield in Week 11 that year left an impression on him.
“That game … the intensity was just that much higher,” he said. “I remember going against a kid who was an All-American that year at corner. When we played him in the regular season, he won his share of the time, I won my share of the time. In the playoffs, he was stuck to me all game. I just couldn’t get open. (It was) one of the few times I walked off the field defeated.”
This year’s Whitworth team is more mature, most certainly. All its offensive starters are upperclassmen. On defense, all but three starters are.
That veteran defense is a particular strength, Sandberg said, because they’re preparing for an opponent on a short week.
“Having a great defense is always going to bode well in the playoffs,” he said. “You don’t necessarily want to take a young team into the playoffs. That’s gonna be a big challenge.”
This year the Pirates are led by a stout corps of linebackers, as the 2006 squad was, though the Pirates of now probably don’t have anyone quite like Clifton in the middle.
As good as McKay and the receivers have been, they probably don’t have a future NFL tight end on the roster, either, as Allan was.
But the NWC carries a strong pedigree. Its 36-22 playoff record since 1999 – including Linfield’s 2004 national championship – is the fifth best among the 25 conferences.
“There are four or five really good conferences in Division III, and I would say the Northwest Conference is one of those,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg just finished a four-year term as chair of the West Region committee, so he’s been in the room where these decisions happen. He said the guidelines given to the committee are clear and helpful and that they lead to a good final product.
But all he can worry about is ensuring the Pirates get to the playoffs. Where they play from there is out of their control.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.