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Whitworth football notebook: Pirates add game at Saint John’s, home contest against Occidental for next season

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 21, 2020

Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg leads his team against Linfield, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg leads his team against Linfield, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

With his football team’s schedule seemingly set, Rod Sandberg fielded two unexpected phone calls two weeks ago that rerouted and expanded the Pirates’ 2020 season.

The first was from the head coach at Occidental (California), who was hoping the programs could flip their upcoming home-and-home games so that Whitworth hosted this coming fall. Sandberg agreed.

The next day he got a call from the Saint John’s football coach in Minnesota, wondering if the Pirates could help the Johnnies plug a newfound hole in their schedule.

Just like that, the Whitworth head coach had what he wanted but thought he was going to wait at least one more year to achieve.

“Perfect schedule,” Sandberg said.

The deal to send the Pirates to Collegeville – and then the Johnnies to Spokane – is “99 percent” done, Sandberg said on Thursday, meaning that for the first time in three seasons, Whitworth will have three nonconference games instead of two, and 10 games total: five at home, five away.

The Whitworth-Saint John’s game is scheduled for Sept. 12.

“It’s a very historic program, a very strong program,” said Tim Demant, Whitworth’s director of athletics. “We feel like we’re in the upper echelon of Division III, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t play opponents like that.”

The Johnnies reached the playoff semifinals last season.

The year before, they hosted and beat the Pirates in the second round of the playoffs.

That matchup – and the way the programs conducted themselves leading up to it – gave Saint John’s head coach Gary Fasching and Sandberg a comfort level with each other, the Whitworth coach said, in knowing the programs were a good competitive and relational match for a home-and-home schedule.

“We’re working with quality people who treat people right,” Sandberg said. “It’s just the kind of game you want to have.”

The plan is for Whitworth to host Saint John’s in September 2021.

It will be the Johnnies’ third visit to the Pine Bowl: They won 7-3 during the 1975 regular season, and in 2006 they defeated the Pirates 21-3 in the second round of the playoffs.

Whitworth would like to have a Midwest team on the schedule every year if possible, but it can be a difficult sell for a home-and-home agreement because those teams have plenty of competitive programs only a bus ride away, Sandberg said.

In 2016 and 2017, Whitworth played a home-and-home schedule with Central (Iowa). The schools split, with the road team winning both times.

Whitworth consistently plays teams from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the only other D-III conference in the Pacific Time Zone. This fall the Pirates will host Occidental (Sept. 5) and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Sept. 19).

Whitworth beat CMS 48-6 in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs at the Pine Bowl.

Sandberg opts not to pursue job at alma mater

Sandberg graduated from Wheaton (Illinois) College in 1991 after four years as a player there. He returned as the program’s linebackers coach in 1995 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2003.

For all of those years, Mike Swider was one career step ahead of Sandberg, first as defensive coordinator when Sandberg was a player, and then as Wheaton’s head coach during Sandberg’s tenure on the Thunder’s defensive staff.

After the 2013 season, Sandberg accepted his current position at Whitworth while Swider stayed on.

When Swider retired on Dec. 10 after 24 years as Wheaton’s head coach – and 39 years as a player and coach in the program – it wasn’t long before Sandberg started getting phone calls.

“We’ve had a ton of success (at Whitworth), and when you have success you have opportunities,” Sandberg said.

“But at the end of the day, you don’t do something because the world says it’s the right thing to do. … The Sandberg family, we love the Pacific Northwest, the outdoors, and we want to raise our boys here, and I want to see my sons become Pirates and play for me here.”

Sandberg is 47-14 in six seasons with the Pirates, including two playoff appearances and one postseason victory. He was named the 2018 Northwest Conference Coach of the Year.

Pirates hire new line coach

Nate Thompson, a 2019 Wheaton graduate, will coach the offensive line this fall, the program announced this week. He replaces Andrew Faaumu, who resigned in December.

Thompson served as the varsity offensive line coach last season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

“He is the kind of coach that’s going to fit the Whitworth University culture,” Sandberg said. “I would want my own son to play for him.”

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