SPOKANE, Wash. – It almost looked like two separate football seasons for the Whitworth Pirates in 2011. After opening the schedule with a record of 1-5 that included two losses on the final play of the game and two other losses by a touchdown, the Pirates rebounded to win three of their final four games. And that only loss in the final stretch was a 42-38 heartbreaker to highly ranked Linfield.
The question for head coach John Tully – how does he keep that momentum going into 2012?
"Our team really learned how to win during the second half of last season," said Tully, who enters his 18th season coaching the Pirates. "Then our spring was the most productive we've had since I've been here. The guys' work ethic really excited the coaches."
And Tully has the tools to work with as well. Whitworth returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense from 2011.
"Our returning skill people are as good as we've had in years," Tully said while recalling the Joel Clark and Michael Allan teams of 2005 and 2006.
The Pirates return 24 touchdowns and nearly all of their rushing and passing offense from last season.
Much of Whitworth's success in 2012 will likely ride on the back of senior running back Ronnie Thomas. Thomas earned First Team All-Northwest Conference last season after rushing for 1,044 yards, including 6.0 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns in his first season with the Bucs.
Thomas will get strong back up from junior D.J. Tripoli, who had 76 yards and two touchdowns in limited action last season, and senior Derek Todd.
Sophomore Bryan Peterson established himself as the Pirates' starter at quarterback midway through last season. He went on to complete 63.2% of his passes for 1,420 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, earning honorable mention All-NWC. Tully specifically pointed to Peterson's performance in the spring drills as one of the team's strength's heading into this season.
Michael McCune, a sophomore, will head into the fall as Peterson's primary back up.
Peterson has several receiving weapons to work with, beginning with a pair of Second Team All-NWC wideouts. Senior Jake DeGooyer led the Pirates in total catches (58) and receiving yards (762) last season and added three touchdowns. Sophomore Austin Ehlo caught nine touchdown passes among his 32 receptions, more than any freshman in Whitworth history.
Juniors Devon Lind (WR) and Wade Meyer (TE) are also returning starters and they combined for 28 receptions last season.
The primary question facing Tully and the Pirates' offense is on the line. Whitworth graduated three starters, including Second Team All-NWC center Emilio Sulpizio. But Tully is confident.
"Our young guys have worked very hard and they are ready to play," he said.
Nate Guthrie, a senior, and Liam Brown, a junior, are the two returning starters.
Colby Davis (senior), Dalton Cosby (junior) and Gavin Horst (junior) have the most experience in Whitworth's program and will be in the hunt for starting roles. Several sophomores hope to step forward as well, including Tyler Gold, Alex Laughery, Seth McDermott, and Kyle Warr. Tully may also look to fill playing time with a transfer or two.
Tully will rely on a talented and experienced backfield to power the Pirate defense in 2012. Whitworth returns three of four starters in the secondary and three starters at linebacker.
"Our speed on defense is as good as it's ever been," he said.
The strong secondary will be led by two returning safeties. Senior Fernando Noriega made a succesful transition from junior college to starting strong safety for the Pirates in 2011, finishing with 62 tackles while breaking up eight passes. Junior Casey Monahan has already been a two-year starter at free safety. He had 44 tackles last season.
Sophomore Paul Miller might have been Whitworth's most impactful defender in 2011, leading the team in tackles (72) and passes broken up (12). He earned Second Team All-NWC honors as a true freshman.
The other starting corner back position could turn into a battle between sophomores Kainoa Raguindin and De' Armon Hall. Both saw plenty of playing action off of the bench last season.
While Whitworth officially returns all three starting linebackers from last season, the truth is that the Bucs have four starters back. That is because an injury to Second Team All-NWC outside LB Ryan Loutsis allowed sophomore Grant Livingston to pick up valuable playing experience as a freshman. Senior Scott Carr, who was also named Second Team All-NWC last season, returns at the other outside position after leading the team in tackles for loss. Nic Brockhoff became the Pirates' starting middle linebacker last fall and posted 43 tackles.
The Pirates will have to replace three starters on the defensive line. Junior tackle Brodrick Hirai is the lone returnee and he had 27 stops in 2011.
Several players already in the program will battle for the other starting spots. Senior Rob Geissler saw plenty of snaps as a back up last year at tackle. The two defensive end positions could come down to a battle between juniors Aaron Cochran and Kyle Davidson, along with sophomores Drew Powell and Cory Heins.
There are several newcomers to the team who look to make their mark on defense as well.
Special Teams –
Whitworth's kicking game should be much improved to 2012. Dominic Aliano joins the Pirates after a successful junior college career at Diablo Valley in California. He will provide a stronger leg for kickoffs and give the Pirates a dangerous option for field goals.
Austin Ehlo was so successful working double duty as Whitworth's punter in 2011 that he was named First Team All-NWC after averaging 39.4 yards per kick. He will continue that role this season.
The Pirates will have to develop a new kickoff return man this fall. Paul Miller took five returns last season and averaged 16.4 yards. Jake DeGooyer should resume his role as the Bucs' primary punt returner. He averaged 5.9 yards in 2011.
The Schedule –
The Pirates face an unbalanced schedule in 2012 with six road games and only four games at the Pine Bowl.
Two of the four non-conference games are against first time opponents. The Bucs will open the season (September 1st) in Duluth, Minnesota against College of St. Scholastica, the defending champion of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference and a 2011 NCAA playoff participant. Whitworth follows with a game at Whittier College in Whittier, California. Then a game at University of La Verne and the home opener against Chapman University round out the non-conference schedule.
Whitworth opens Northwest Conference play on the road at Pacific (Ore.) and the Boxers will be looking to post their first NWC victory since restarting the program in 2010. The Bucs then host Willamette for Homecoming and Hall of Fame festivities on October 6th and Pirate fans can only hope for a repeat of the thrilling double overtime victory in 2011. Whitworth then travels to perennial power Linfield followed by a home contest against Puget Sound in the Bucs' longest-running series. The final road game is at Pacific Lutheran and Whitworth closes at home against vastly improved Lewis & Clark.