Battered by injuries all season, this week the Whitworth Pirates football players will return their equipment, send off their seniors and lay the groundwork for the next campaign.
They finished the year with a 38-28 victory at Pacific (Oregon) and ended in second place in the Northwest Conference with a 5-2 record (6-3 overall), two games behind Linfield, which restored its title as conference champion after Whitworth wrested it away a year ago.
Linfield (8-1) will play at Chapman (9-0) on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. But had the Pirates been able to close out the Wildcats two weeks ago, when they led 31-21 heading into the fourth quarter, Whitworth would likely be the team heading to California.
Instead, the Pirates lost that game in overtime, 38-31, and so they are the ones packing up their lockers and preparing for another shot at the conference title in 2020.
“We don’t define or measure ourselves by only winning. We want to be more than that,” coach Ron Sandberg, 47-14 in six seasons at Whitworth, said Monday. “Sometimes you can’t control the winning and losing. These guys are winners in life. They battled through an unbelievably adverse season.”
The Pirates suffered myriad injuries this year, including ones that prevented senior quarterback Leif Ericksen and defensive end Andrew McCoy – one of two Pirates players named to the First Team All-NWC on Monday – from playing in a late-October loss at Puget Sound, 34-23.
They also lost 2018 all-conference linebacker Jaylen Gonzales to an injury in the season’s third game, one from which he never returned. Sandberg said Gonzales, a junior, will file for a medical redshirt and hopes to have him back for two more seasons.
Junior Iain Black also missed four games. Senior wideout Taylor Hall wasn’t fully healthy most of the season. And before the year began, senior running back Tariq Ellis ruptured his Achilles tendon and wasn’t able to play. Ellis may also apply for a medical redshirt.
Even junior Noah Alejado, who stepped in as the team’s primary kicker and punter in August, suffered a leg injury three days before the season finale and didn’t play at Pacific.
On top of those injuries, more players were banged up all year, Sandberg said, and it was only now that the coach was willing to start counting up all the games and snaps the Pirates lost to injury.
“We had so many guys out,” Sandberg said, “but we refuse to use that as an excuse.”
Still, all the playing time younger players received due to those injuries could pay off for the Pirates next season.
Four starters are expected to return on offense. Connor Johnson, the backup quarterback this season who completed 43 of 78 attempts and also ran for 211 yards, is positioned to start as a senior next season.
Defensively, the Pirates could return as many as eight starters, including both starting cornerbacks (Bryce Hornbeck and Colten Chelin) and, aside from McCoy, a bevy of defensive linemen from their rotation this year.
Senior linebacker Kale Wong, the other Pirates player named to the First Team All-NWC, said last week that the progress the program has made during his career at Whitworth was notable and something he was proud to be a part of.
During Wong’s four years, the Pirates went 32-8, won a conference title (in 2018) for the first time since 2007 and was one fourth-quarter stop from beating Linfield for the second year in a row.
“Even last year, just going back to the Linfield game, I feel like they didn’t respect we beat them that year, thinking it was a fluke,” Wong said. “(This year) we came to play … it showed that we can compete with anybody.”
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