Over Whitworth University head coach Rod Sandberg's first three seasons the Pirates improved into a good football team. Now the challenge for Sandberg and his staff is to elevate the Bucs from good to great.
Whitworth is 17-4 over the last two seasons, including an NCAA Division III playoff appearance in 2015. But the team can be better.
"The teams that make the jump from good to great do a few things differently," said Sandberg, who is 23-8 heading into his fourth year as the Pirates' coach. "First, they respond to adversity well. Adversity happens to all teams and great teams do not let disappointment and adversity derail them from believing they will accomplish their goals. Second, the teams that become great have excellent leaders, who are selfless and put the team before themselves. Last, great teams have playmakers that make game-changing plays at opportune times."
Whitworth will rely on an explosive offense, key veterans on the special teams and a revamped defense to make the jump from good to great in 2017. Several key seniors will lead the way.
"The entire senior class has really stepped up and taken the role of leader very seriously," Sandberg said. "They each have different skills and gifts and it has been fun to see them use those this off-season."
Several key members of an offense that averaged 45.9 points per game in 2016 return, including senior QB Ian Kolste (First Team All-NWC, Second Team All-Region), offensive tackle Tyler Adamson (First Team All-NWC) and wide receiver Garrett McKay (First Team All-NWC).
Kolste (Sr., Oak Harbor, Wash.) completed 351 of 488 passes for 3,790 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2016. He led all of NCAA Division III in pass completions per game (35.1), passing yards and passing yards per game (379.0). Kolste set Whitworth team records for pass attempts, pass completions, completion percentage (71.9), passing yards, total offense (3,831) and he tied a team record for touchdown passes. With a full season still to play, Kolste has already set the school record for career pass completions (710) and he will likely break several more career passing records.
No other QB on the team has thrown a single pass. Sophomore Leif Ericksen has a year of practice under his belt and will provide back up. Jared Oliver and Connor Johnson are a pair of highly regarded freshmen.
Kolste has another strong receiving corps to throw to, led by senior Garrett McKay who finished with 72 catches for 1,024 yards with eight touchdown catches last season. A punt returner and kick returner as well, McKay led Whitworth with 1,409 all-purpose yards (140.9 ypg).
Seniors Kevin Thomas and Nick Kiourkas both earned Second Team All-NWC recognition in 2016. Thomas finished with 51 receptions for 689 yards and six touchdowns. Kiourkas, who was a First Team All-NWC honoree in 2015, caught 38 passes for 537 yards and seven touchdowns.
Another senior, Michael McKeown, is heading into his second season as a starter at the final receiver spot. He caught 33 passes for 288 yards a year ago.
Mason Elms, Cody Hand, Brett Moser and Chase Takaki all have valuable experience as back up receivers and each could step into a starting role if necessary.
There will be a big change at tailback after the graduation of Duke DeGaetano, who led the NWC with 1,001 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Griffin Hare, who has battled persistent injuries since he scored eight rushing touchdowns as a freshman in 2013, should be ready to step into that role. Sophomore Tariq Ellis, who ran for more than 1,700 yards and 21 TDs as a senior in high school, could push for time as well.
Whitworth returns three starters on the offensive line, led by Adamson who earned first team all-league recognition as a second-year left tackle in 2016. Fellow junior Jacob Hubbard returns as the starting center, while senior Vince Porporato is back at right tackle. The Pirates' offensive line was a big reason that Whitworth converted over 50% of its third downs in 2016 to lead the Northwest Conference.
There are several options to fill the two starting guard spots. Senior Tanner Conroy and sophomore Nick Little have the most returning playing experience from 2016. Senior Conor Weise is also a veteran on the offensive line. Sophomores Griffen Marler and Icher Pule-Annes have developed significantly since this time last year, as has Kurt Blackman – who can also back up at tackle.
Whitworth has an experienced special teams unit as well, beginning with the kicker. Rehn Reiley will continue to hold down primary responsibility for place kicking, kickoffs and punts. Reiley was a First Team All-NWC honoree as a freshman and Second Team last season as a sophomore and he has more field goals and touchbacks than any other NWC kicker over the last two seasons. The Pirates have the luxury of real depth as kicker as Vernon Parker got game experience on kickoffs, punts and PATs last season.
McKay and Moser have more than one year of experience as Whitworth's kick returners and both should see plenty of action returning punts and kickoffs in 2017.
It is on the defensive side of the ball where the Pirates will see the most change. Most of that change will be evident on the defensive line. The Bucs graduated five of their top six defensive linemen from last season. Juniors Chad Wilburg, Chase Wilcutt and P-Jay Solomon have the most in-game experience. However, a talented group of sophomores is expected to step forward, including Jack McCleod, Andrew McCoy, Charlie Ball, Brennan Folkins and Tom Wilkie.
Whitworth returns two starters at linebacker in seniors Patch Kulp and Connor Tangeman. Kulp recorded 70 tackles in 2016 and earned Second Team All-NWC recognition while Tangeman was the NWC defensive player of the week for his efforts in the Pirates' victory at Whittier. Kale Wong gained valuable experience before a mid-season injury ended his freshman campaign last fall. Brian Lee was one of the first linebackers off of the bench in 2016 and finished with 14 tackles. Case Foisset and Iain Black demonstrated measurable improvement in the off-season.
The Pirates are still very experienced in the secondary. Second Team All-NWC cornerback Taylor Roelofs finished with 15 total passes defended last year and will enter his fourth season as a starter. Fellow senior LJ Benson led the Bucs with three interceptions in 2016 and returns on the other side at corner. Ben Stockdale and Shai Pulawa have both previously started games at safety. John-Robert Woolley has the most experience as a backup in the secondary, but Jayden Jira and Zach Hillman both traveled to away games in 2016 as well.
Sandberg believes that if his team is to make the jump from good to great in 2017, it will be the seniors leading the way.
"This is an outstanding group of young men who four years ago took a chance on a new staff when they had no reason to," he said. "They believed in the vision we had and have stayed the course and have built something special. We are thankful for their commitment, their work ethic and for their leadership."
Whitworth opens training for the 2017 season on Saturday. The Pirates will have three weeks of practice before traveling to Pella, Iowa to take on Central College in the season opener on Saturday, September 2nd.
2017 Preseason Practice Schedule* (on the practice field behind the Fieldhouse unless noted):
Sat. Aug. 12 – 4:00 pm – 5:15 pm
Sun. Aug. 13 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:30 pm – 8:15 pm (walkthrough)
Mon. Aug. 14 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:00 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Tues. Aug. 15 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:00 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Wed. Aug. 16 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:15 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Thur. Aug. 17 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am (Pine Bowl) / 7:00 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Fri. Aug. 18 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:00 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Sat. Aug. 19 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 3:45 pm – 5:15 pm (walkthrough)
Sun. Aug. 20 – Off
Mon. Aug. 21 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm (walkthrough)
Tues. Aug. 22 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:00 pm – 8:25 pm (walkthrough)
Wed. Aug. 23 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am / 7:15 pm – 8:45 pm (walkthrough)
Thur. Aug. 24 – 7:45 am – 10:15 am
Fri. Aug. 25 – 9:15 am – 11:45 am (Pine Bowl) / 3:15 pm – 5:00 pm (walkthrough)
Sat. Aug. 26 – 11:00 am (Intra Squad Scrimmage in the Pine Bowl)
Sun. Aug. 27 – Off
Mon. Aug. 28 – 3:30 pm – 6:00 pm (walkthrough)
Tues. Aug. 29 – 9:00 am – 10:00 am (walkthrough) / 3:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Wed. Aug. 30 – 3:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Thur. Aug. 31 – 3:30 pm – 6:00 pm (Pine Bowl)
Fri. Sept. 1 – Depart for Pella, Iowa
* Subject to change