SPOKANE, Wash. – The Whitworth Pirates ventured out into the deeper seas of Division III football in 2018 and hope for a longer voyage in 2019. Coming off a 10-1 record, a Northwest Conference title, and a win in the first round of the NCAA playoffs, Whitworth is looking for even more plunder this fall.
Following a successful off-season practice session in the spring, the Pirates return seven starters on defense and five on offense from the 2018 campaign, including several All-Northwest Conference honorees. Whitworth opens training camp this week as the 11th-ranked team in the D3football.com preseason poll. The first practice is on Thursday at 4:00 pm and 111 players will be in uniform.
"The best thing about our 2019 off-season is that I sensed a real deep-seated drive to not be satisfied," said Rod Sandberg, the 2018 NWC Coach of the Year. "Coming off a championship season, it is human nature to think that you have arrived, or to relax, or to lose the hunger to do whatever it takes to climb to the top. There was none of that. We had our best, most focused, and intense off-season since I have been here."
Sandberg is 41-11 entering his sixth season as the Pirates' head coach.
Whitworth's defense will be anchored by three returning starters at linebacker, all of whom earned some all-conference recognition in 2019.
Kale Wong (Sr., Gig Harbor, Wash.) earned first team All-NWC and third team All-Region (D3football.com) last season after leading the squad in total tackles (78) and solo stops (47). He forced three fumbles and intercepted a pass. Jaylen Gonzales (Jr., Waianae, Hawaii) joined Wong on the 2018 All-NWC first team after recording 68 tackles. He made 9.5 tackles for loss (34 yards), intercepted two passes and returned a fumble 58 yards. Iain Black (Jr., Snohomish, Wash.) had 58 tackles, including nine for loss (30 yards) and blocked a kick to claim honorable mention All-NWC consideration.
"This group of linebackers is experienced, athletic, fast and physical," Sandberg said. "At both ILB spots there are senior back-ups, so we are also deep."
Those backups include Gunnar Swannack (Sr., Nine Mile Falls, Wash.), who has starting experience, and Kaipo Barnes (Sr., Hanford, Calif.), a program veteran. Ethan Fields (So., Bellingham, Wash.) gained experience as a backup last season.
The defensive line must overcome the graduation of 2018 Co-NWC Defensive Player of the Year Chad Wilburg, who finished with 18 tackles for loss (88 yards) and 13 sacks (78 yards). However, the defensive line was the deepest position group on the field for Whitworth in 2018, so there is plenty of returning talent.
Andrew McCoy (Sr., Snohomish, Wash.), Tom Wilkie (Sr., Davenport, Wash.) and Charlie Ball (Jr., Roanoke, Va.) all have significant playing experience at defensive end. McCoy was a second team All-NWC selection in 2018. Solo Grey (Jr., Waianae, Hawaii) and Cameron Jeske (So., Spokane, Wash.) gained game experience as well last season.
Mason Miksch (Jr., Monroe, Wash.) returns as the starting defense tackle, while Brennan Folkins (Jr., Spokane, Wash.) hopes to be fully recovered from an injury that forced him to miss the entire 2018 schedule.
The starting job at nose tackle is available and Rudyjay Keopuhiwa (Jr., Waianae, Hawaii) and Dylan Peterson (So.., Sedro-Woolley, Wash.) will battle for that spot.
Zach Hillman (Sr., Post Falls, Idaho) and Colten Chelin (So., Kennewick, Wash.) are the two returning starters in the secondary. Hillman could move to strong safety after he started at free safety and finished with 66 total tackles in 2018. Chelin claimed NWC Freshman of the Year and honorable mention All-NWC recognition as a starting cornerback. He led the Pirates with four interceptions.
Parker Shaw (Sr., Wilsonville, Ore.), BJ Mullin (So., Moses Lake, Wash.), Jacob Hogger (So., Bainbridge Island, Wash.) and Jacob Hangartner (So., Lomita, Calif.) have the most returning experience at safety. The quartet will battle for the other starting spot and important backup playing time at both safety positions.
The second cornerback spot will come down to a battle between juniors Blake Bingham (Monroe, Wash.) and Bryce Hornbeck (Sedro-Woolley, Wash.), along with sophomore Brayden Ayala (Waianae, Hawaii).
Whitworth's defense forced 27 takeaways and held opponents to 16.5 points and 311.2 yards per game in 2018. The Bucs hope to be even better this fall.
Leif Ericksen (Sr., Kalispell, Mont.) won the battle as starting quarterback last season and went on to claim first team All-NWC recognition by completing 63% of his passes for 2933 yards with 27 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
Connor Johnson (Jr., Snohomish, Wash.) was limited to only six games in his backup role, but he still ran for two touchdowns and threw for another. Pirate coaches once again expect to show offensive packages designed for Johnson's skill set.
Whitworth must replace both starting offensive tackles, including first team All-Region honoree Tyler Adamson. Three starters return on the offensive line: Kurt Blackman (Sr., Walla Walla, Wash.), Seth Fukushima (Sr., Hilo, Hawaii) and Dylan McGillen (Sr., Spokane, Wash.). McGillen will be back at center and Fukushima will likely remain at one of the guard spots. Blackman may move from guard to tackle.
Icher Pule-Annes (RS Jr., Hilo, Hawaii) had won a starting position in 2018, but an injury cost him the entire season before it started.
Tommy Clausen (Sr., Gig Harbor, Wash.), Drew Aungst (Jr., Sedro-Woolley, Wash.) and Andrew Diddens (Jr., Sunnyside, Wash.) have the most playing experience as backups. Anthony Christopher (So., Tacoma, Wash.), Luke Davis (So., Spokane Valley, Wash.), Max Long (So., Shoreline, Wash.) and Devon Zwanzig (So., Spokane, Wash.) could be ready to break through into regular playing time on the line.
"We've got some work to do on the offensive line," Sandberg said. "We will need several younger, inexperienced players to step up and provide stability up front."
Tariq Ellis, who split time at tailback with 2018 second team All-NWC honoree Mason Elms over the last two seasons, is ready to take on the starting role. He has run for 946 yards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns over the last two years.
Brayden Corona (Jr., San Louis Obispo, Calif.) has shown explosive skills as a backup tailback. Brad Mills (Sr., Arcadia, Calif.) gives the Pirates' significant depth.
Despite the graduation of record-setting receiver Garrett McKay, talent still abounds in Whitworth's deep corps of receivers. Nick McGill (Sr., East Wenatchee, Wash.), Taylor Hall (Sr., East Wenatchee, Wash.) and Isain Wong-Lonzanida (Sr., Nanakuli, Hawaii) combined for 70 receptions for 830 yards and six touchdowns in 2018. Taylor Kolste (RS Jr., Oak Harbor, Wash.) was limited to only two games by injury last fall, but was expected to have a significant role. Caleb Jones (RS Jr., Kalispell, Mont.), Noah Alejado (Jr., Kapolei, Hawaii) and Jerusalem To'oto'o (Jr., Waianae, Hawaii) all have on-field experience. Isaiah Cole (So., Monroe, Wash.) and Ethan Peloquin (So., Bainbridge Island, Wash.) both saw playing time as freshman in 2018.
Anthony Ruiz (Sr., Othello, Wash.), who earned honorable mention All-NWC in 2018, returns as the Pirates' tight end when the Bucs go to a formation that includes that position on offense.
Whitworth led the NWC in scoring offense (38.8 ppg) and total offense (452.8 ypg) in 2018.
Corona earned honorable mention All-NWC as a kick returner in 2018, averaging 24 yards per run back. Wong-Lonzanida has experience returning kickoffs and punts. The coaches hope to get Cole's explosive speed on the field as a returner as well.
The big turnover is at kicker/punter. Cody McDonald chose not to return to Whitworth for personal reasons, so Whitworth will have a new kicker and punter in 2019.
Whitworth opens the season with non-conference games at La Verne (Calif.) and Chapman (Calif.) in September.
The Pirates' first home game, and NWC opener, is on October 5th vs. Willamette. It is also Homecoming and Hall of Fame weekend in the Pine Bowl.
Other home games include George Fox (Oct. 19), Pacific Lutheran (Nov. 2) and Linfield (Nov. 9). Whitworth will honor veterans in that Senior Day contest.
NWC road games include Lewis & Clark (Oct. 12 in Portland), Puget Sound (Oct. 26 in Tacoma) and Pacific (Nov. 16 in Forest Grove, Ore.).