Linfield Picked Top of NWC, Whitworth 4th - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Linfield Picked Top of NWC, Whitworth 4th

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Whitworth was picked to finish 4th in the Northwest Conference this fall. Whitworth was picked to finish 4th in the Northwest Conference this fall.

HILLSBORO, Ore. – After taking a share of its sixth straight Northwest Conference football championship in 2014, nationally-ranked Linfield College is heavily favored to win the league title again in 2015, according to the pre-season predictions of the NCAA Division III conference’s eight coaches as announced by the NWC office Tuesday afternoon.

2015 Northwest Conference Football Pre-Season Coaches’ Poll
TEAM                               1STS          PTS    ‘14 NWC    ‘14 ALL
Linfield College                     (7)             56           6-1         11-2
Pacific University (Ore.)                         42            6-1          6-3
Pacific Lutheran University                     35            5-2          7-2
Whitworth University             (1)             31            4-3          6-4
Willamette University                             29            3-4          5-4
George Fox University                           14             1-6         1-8
Lewis & Clark College                           13             0-7          0-9
University of Puget Sound                      12             3-4         4-5
(Points awarded on a 8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.  Coaches could not vote on their own teams.)

Linfield, which is ranked anywhere from second to fifth in several national college football pre-season polls, received seven first-place votes and a total of 56 points in balloting by the coaches, who were not allowed to vote for their own teams.  The Wildcats are coming off an 11-2 season (6-1 in NWC play) in which they reached the semifinals of the D-III playoffs before bowing to the eventual national champion University of Wisconsin-Whitewater 20-14.  Linfield will be looking to extend its national record (at any level) of 59 consecutive winning seasons.

Defense has always been a strength of the Wildcats, and this year should be no different with NWC Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American senior defensive end Alex Hoff returning.  Joining him are a pair of senior defensive backs in All-NWC First Team choice Kyle Belcher and honorable mention Keanu Yamamoto.  On offense, sixth-year coach Joseph Smith, the NWC and National Coach of the Year, welcomes back All-NWC First Team and All-West Region offensive lineman Eric Pitassi (Sr.) and punter Kevin McClean (Jr.), as well as All-NWC honorable mention quarterback Sam Riddle (Jr.).

Linfield did lose four D3football All-Americans in Third Team tackle Steven Schultz and honorable mention center Jeremy Patrick, defensive tackle Jeremy Girod, and safety Jordan Giza.  However, the Wildcats have developed into a program that regenerates itself quickly, and they should again be national contenders for an NCAA title, which they last won in 2004 (only Whitewater and the University of Mount Union have won D-III titles since then).

NWC co-champion Pacific University is expected to be Linfield’s closest challenger in 2015, having received seven second-place votes for 42 points.  The Boxers went 6-3 overall and won their first six conference games last fall before being upended by the Wildcats on the final day of the regular season.  It was Pacific’s first share of the conference crown since 1952.

Pacific led the nation in pass completion percentage (.688) last year and returns All-NWC honorable mention quarterback Warner Shaw (Sr.) to keep the Boxer offense humming.  Running back Kamana Pimental (Jr.), an All-NWC Second Team selection, will help keep defenses honest.  The Pacific defense should again be solid with All-NWC Second Team picks Jeff Bajema (Jr.) on the defensive line and linebacker Jack Perez (Sr.) returning, along with honorable mention linebacker Avery Richardson (Jr.).  Sixth-year coach Keith Buckley must find replacements for a trio of All-NWC First Team selections in wide receiver Jakob Lawrence, offensive lineman Will Ulrich, and defensive back Brandon Harms.

Third place in the NWC pre-season poll went to Pacific Lutheran University, which garnered 35 points from the coaches.  The Lutes had the second-best overall record in the conference last year at 7-2 and were third in the NWC standings at 5-2.  Though not ranked in the top 25, PLU was listed among “others receiving votes” in the pre-season poll.

Head coach Scott Westering, who has guided the Lutes for 11 seasons, has big shoes to fill with the loss of five All-NWC First Teamers: quarterback Dalton Ritchey, running back Niko Madison, wide receiver Kyle Warner, offensive lineman Tevon Stephens-Brown, and defensive back Greg Hibbard.  Also gone as six All-NWC Second Team selections.  The key returnee is All-NWC honorable mention senior defensive lineman Cody Tupen.

The lone first-place vote that did not go to Linfield went to Whitworth University, which collected 31 total points to come in fourth in the balloting.  The explosive Pirates went 6-4 overall and finished fourth in the conference last year at 4-3.

Whitworth led the nation with 368.1 passing yards per game in 2014, and the Pirates must replace three key components of that attack: All-NWC First Team wide receivers Drew Clausen, the national leader in receptions (9.7 per game), and Connor Williams, and Second Team quarterback Bryan Peterson, whose 34.0 completions per game led the nation.  Offensive lineman Kyle Cosby (Sr.) and defensive lineman Danny Welstad, both All-NWC First Team selections, will be counted on heavily by second-year coach Rod Sandberg.  The Pirates also bring back a pair of honorable mentions in running back Duke DeGaetano (Jr.) and linebacker J.T. Phelan (So.).

Just behind Whitworth in fifth place in the poll was Willamette University with 29 points.  The Bearcats, who handed Linfield its only regular-season loss, posted a 5-4 overall record and went 3-4 to finish fifth in the conference last year.

The graduation of NWC Offensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American Dylan Jones, who led the nation with 177.7 yards rushing per game and finished in the top 10 in four other categories, leaves a big hole in the Willamette offense.  First Team All-America linebacker Jack Nelson, a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top defensive player, is also gone, as is All-NWC First Team offensive lineman Ryan Springer.  Fourth-year head coach Glen Fowles does welcome back All-NWC Second Team wide receiver Ryan Foote (Sr.) in a retooling effort.

George Fox snuck into sixth place in the NWC coaches’ poll with 14 points, while Lewis & Clark was seventh with 13 points and the University of Puget Sound eighth with 12 points.  George Fox was back on the gridiron for the first time in 46 years, and while the Bruins’ 1-8 overall record and 1-6 conference record and seventh-place finish was not unexpected, the program’s box office success certainly was.  George Fox drew over 15,000 fans for its five home contests to easily lead the NWC in average attendance with over 3,000 per game.

Leading the youthful Bruins into the second season of their revival will be All-NWC honorable mention running back John Shaffer (Jr.), but they must replace All-NWC Second Team linebacker Charles Riga and honorable mention defensive back Justin Leatherman.  Chris Casey enters his second season as the head coach of his hometown team.

Lewis & Clark finished eighth in the conference at 0-7 last year and was 0-9 overall, but the Pioneers made headlines in the off-season when Jay Locey, who led Linfield to the 2004 national championship, was hired away from his assistant position at Oregon State University to bring about a new era for the Pios’ program.  All-NWC Second Team linebacker Andrew Traver was the biggest loss for Lewis & Clark.

Puget Sound, after going 4-5 overall and 3-4 to finish sixth in the NWC, will look to continue its progress under sixth-year coach Jeff Thomas behind a quartet of All-NWC Second Team performers: wide receiver Kevin Miller (Sr.), offensive lineman Reid Hartmann (Jr.), kicker/punter Sawyer Petre (Sr.), and defensive back Jake Wuesthoff (Jr.).  

The Northwest Conference coaches and players have come together to dedicate the 2015 season to the memory of Linfield football player Parker Moore, who was tragically killed before the start of the NCAA playoffs last year.  Every NWC player will wear a special helmet decal with Parker's initials and his number (#35) on it.

The 2015 season kicks off with three NWC teams on the road on Saturday, Sept. 5:  Pacific at the College of Idaho, George Fox at the University of La Verne, and Puget Sound at the Claremont McKenna-Harvey Mudd-Scripps Colleges.  The conference schedule commences on Saturday, Oct. 3, with Linfield at Lewis & Clark, George Fox at Whitworth, Pacific Lutheran at Pacific, and Puget Sound at Willamette.

The Northwest Conference has no football playoff, instead sending its regular season champion to the NCAA Division III Playoffs with an automatic bid.

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