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If Whitworth intends to make that elusive national championship run, it will likely require ‘Perfection’ during the regular season

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Coming off their first Northwest Conference title since 2007, the Pirates are decidedly not underdogs anymore.

Sixth-year head coach Rod Sandberg has elevated the program – ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll, one spot ahead of rival Linfield – to one of the best on the West Coast.

Therein lies the challenge for the Pirates: to maintain a successful program, not aspire to be one.

Players are confident that the culture of winning has been firmly reestablished for a program that is now 41-11 under Sandberg, the best five-year run in Whitworth history.

“Coach Sandberg has done a great job of establishing the family culture,” said Zach Hillman, senior safety and one of two defensive captains. “Our theme for this year is ‘All My Love,’ and I think if guys buy into that, that’s gonna be another thing for establishing culture. Love is not a feeling, but it’s an action, and that’s shown by how you care for people, and I think that’s shown in this program.”

What’s included

The Pirates return starting quarterback Leif Ericksen, who threw for 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior, earning first-team All-Northwest Conference recognition. He was sacked just 16 times all year, and in six games he wasn’t sacked at all. Three starters return from that offensive line.

Also returning is running back Tariq Ellis, who ran for 469 yards and five touchdowns a year ago as part of what was the best rushing attack in the conference (1,828 rushing yards). Between Ellis, now a senior, junior Brayden Corona and senior Brad Mills, the Pirates are confident they will have a strong rushing attack once more.

Defensively, their starting linebacker trio of junior Jaylen Gonzalez and seniors Kale Wong and Iain Black is the most proven group in the NWC, and with Hillman, the Pirates return their four top tacklers from 2018.

They will form the core of a defense that allowed just 68.3 rushing yards per game, forced 27 turnovers and recorded a conference-high 47 sacks.

How to play

Who records those sacks, though, remains unclear. Chad Wilburg, now the team’s defensive line coach, earned the NWC’s co-defensive player of the year award after his 13-sack campaign a season ago. Andrew McCoy, who started on the other end of the defensive line from Wilburg, is back for his season year after a 6.5-sack effort as a junior.

The Pirates also lost tackle P-Jay Solomon, who had 5.5 sacks in seven games last year. In all, Whitworth returns players who had just 20.5 of those 47 sacks a year ago.

After Hillman at safety, the secondary is young, with no other seniors on the depth chart. Shai Pulawa and Jayden Jira graduated, vacating two starting spots. A trio of sophomores – safety BJ Mullin and cornerbacks Colten Chelin and Braiden Ayala – will get the opportunity to build a foundation in the secondary that could last for three years.

Perhaps the biggest issue the team needs to settle is its kicking game, though, with no returning specialists. Sophomore Dhylan Worster will be the long snapper, while Nate Rapue (a sophomore) and Alvaro Campos (a freshman) have worked this fall to replace kicker/punter Cody McDonald, who left the program this summer.

McDonald made 10 of 15 field-goal attempts a year ago, the best ratio in the NWC. He and Kevin Ramsey, who also left the program after his sophomore season, averaged a combined 35.7 yards per punt in a nearly 50-50 split of opportunities.

How to win

With only five at-large bids available in the Division III playoff field, in order to reach the 32-team postseason the Pirates almost certainly need to win the Northwest Conference – and that means they have to beat Linfield on November 9.

For the second year in a row, though, the Pirates get the Wildcats at the Pine Bowl, where Whitworth beat Linfield 19-14 in their conference opener last September.

Yet playing Linfield later in the season this time around could be a mixed blessing. Yes, that will give the Pirates more time to figure out their kicking game and to solidify the depth Sandberg said the team needs to establish. But it also means the Wildcats will have potentially sorted out their own lingering issues.

The Pirates open the year with the same nonconference opponents they did a year ago, but this time they will do so on the road. They start at La Verne on Sept. 7, and two weeks later make the trip to Chapman (California), which lost to the Pirates a year ago by only three points, 31-28.

Both those teams finished in the middle of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, whose champion, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Whitworth beat 48-6 in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Without a marquee nonconference opponent on the schedule, Whitworth simply doesn’t have a clear path to an at-large playoff bid.

But there is good reason to think the Pirates can repeat as conference champions. While they graduated Garrett McKay, the program’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, they have five senior receivers on the roster who are primed to collectively take his targets from the veteran quarterback Ericksen.

Their running game should be solid, and so long as they can keep Ericksen’s blind side protected – they will have new starters at left tackle and left guard – the Pirates should roll into the matchup with Linfield at 7-0, with the conference title on the line yet again.

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