Whitworth University opens the 2018 football season at 1:00 pm on Saturday at home against the University of La Verne. It is the season opener for both teams and the 13th all-time meeting between the schools. The game will be heard live in Spokane on KSBN 1230am and on the internet at KSBN.net. The radio broadcast will begin at 12:45 am (PDT).
Whitworth is coming off an 8-2 record in 2017, the third straight strong season under head coach Rod Sandberg. The Pirates went 5-2 in the Northwest Conference to finish tied for second place. La Verne went 3-5 overall and finished 2-4 (tied for fifth) in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference, including one cancelation.
Live Links for Saturday's game:
Whitworth (0-0, 0-0 NWC)
La Verne (0-0, 0-0 SCIAC)
Saturday - Sept. 1
The Pirates: Whitworth will have a new look on the field on offense and a new coordinator on the sidelines on defense in 2018. The Pirates return only four offensive starters, while first-year defensive coordinator Adam Shamion has seven starters back on defense.
After a strong off-season battle with sophomore Connor Johnson, junior Leif Ericksen has earned the starting nod at quarterback. He has big shoes to fill, taking over for Ian Kolste who graduated with nearly every Pirate career passing record. However, Kolste is still around to help his successor, having joined Whitworth's coaching staff. Last season Erickson completed 59.3% of his passes for 418 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions as the primary back up.
Ericksen has several options at receiver, beginning with two-time first team All-Northwest honoree Garrett McKay, who is back for a final year of eligibility, as is Brett Moser. Both missed one season due to injury or illness. They will provide leadership for a young-but-talented receiving corps.
Whitworth returns to quality running backs in senior Mason Elms and junior Tariq Ellis. The pair combined to rush for 1,098 yards with ten touchdowns last season. Both averaged better than seven yards per carry.
The offensive line includes two returning starters, led by two-time first team All-NWC left tackle Tyler Adamson. Senior Jacob Hubbard will move from center to right guard. Dylan McGillen, a junior, will take over at center. Kurt Blackman, another junior, joins Hubbard on the right side at tackle, while junior Icher Pule-Annes moves in at left guard.
The Pirate defense is experienced up front. While not as experienced in the secondary, Whitworth has some young talent that has waited in the wings.
The defensive line is deep and experienced. Senior Chad Wilburg, an All-NWC honoree in 2017, and junior Andrew McCoy will start as defensive ends. Wilburg led the Bucs in tackles for loss (9.5) last fall. Jack McLeod, a junior, and sophomore Mason Miksch, will start at the tackle spots. Tom Wilkie, Charlie Ball, and Chase Wilcutt have all seen extensive playing time on the line. Senior P-Jay Solomon, a starter in 2017, was injured in camp and looks to make his return soon.
Kale Wong, a junior, picked up honorable mention All-NWC consideration in 2017 despite missing three games because of injury. He returns as a starting outside linebacker. Junior Gunnar Swannack has earned the other starting spot at OLB. Jaylen Gonzales, who saw extensive playing time as a freshman in 2017, will take over as the starting Mike linebacker.
Whitworth's starting safeties are experienced. Shai Pulawa returns to start at strong safety for the second straight season and is the Pirates' leading returning tackler. Zach Hillman became a starter on defense as a sophomore last fall and moves into the free safety role in 2018. Senior Jayden Jira and sophomore Bryce Hornbeck will start at cornerback on Saturday. Jarin Manuel, a starter for the second half of 2017, is still recovering from injury.
Whitworth lost an important weapon on the special teams in Rehn Reiley, who graduated in only three years. Sophomore Kevin Ramsay will take over primary placekicking and punting duties, while freshman Cody McDonald assumes the kickoff role. Garrett McKay and Brett Moser return as the primary punt and kickoff returners.
Team Captains: The Pirate team captains in 2018 are Garrett McKay and Tyler Adamson from the offense and Chad Wilburg and Kale Wong from the defense. A special teams captain will be selected on a week-by-week basis.
New Name for the Field: Whitworth's new Fieldturf facility, in only its second year, will be dedicated in honor of Ron and Georgia Lee Puryear at halftime of Saturday's game. Whitworth alumnus Jim Puryear ('91) and his wife Bobbie are the primary donors for the new football field and it will be named in honor of his parents. Now the Pirate football teams play at Puryear Field in the Whitworth Pine Bowl.
Full Home Slate: Whitworth will play six home games in 2018. It is the first time the Pirates have six home football games since 2013. Whitworth is also only playing a nine-game schedule for the first time since 2005.
Looking Back at 2017: Back-to-back subpar performances in the middle of the season were bookended by strong play to open and close the schedule. The Pirates finished 8-2 overall and 5-2 (tie for second) in the NWC. Whitworth won the first three games by a combined score of 148-23. The Bucs suffered a letdown in losses at Linfield (38-9) and at home to George Fox (43-23) the next two weeks. Whitworth responded with five straight victories to end the season, including a key victory at Pacific Lutheran without starting quarterback Ian Kolste.
Two Long Records: A pair of Pirate returnees set school records in 2017 with long touchdown runs. Mason Elms ran 96 yards for a touchdown in a 48-7 win at Lewis & Clark on November 4th, breaking the old record of 92 yards set by Vern Tucker in 1948. Garrett McKay broke the school record for longest punt return when he raced 82 yards for a score in Whitworth's 30-20 victory at Pacific (Ore.) on October 28th. Darryl Russell set the old record of 64 yards in 1959.
Great Hands Garrett: Garrett McKay comes into the season as one of the most prolific pass-catchers in Whitworth history. The two-time first team All-Northwest Conference honoree has caught 182 passes for 2,097 yards in his career. He is within reach of Whitworth's career records for receptions (248, Wayne Ralph, 1983-86) and receiving yards (3,042, Dwayne Tawney, 2000-03). McKay had caught at least one pass in 32 straight games until the 2017 season finale.
Preseason rankings: Whitworth was listed among "others receiving votes" with three points in the D3football.com preseason poll.
NWC Poll: Whitworth finished third in the 2018 NWC coaches poll with 39 points behind Linfield (49) and George Fox (40). Linfield, aiming for a tenth straight title, picked up seven of eight first place votes. Whitworth received the only other first place vote.
On the Air Again: Whitworth's games will once again be carried live this season on KSBN 1230am in Spokane. The relationship between Pirate athletics and KSBN goes back to 1994, a span of 24 years. Bud Nameck, familiar to listeners in Spokane as the host of the KXLY 920am Morning News, is in his third season as the voice of the Pirates in 2018. He was the voice of Washington State University men's basketball for 22 years, and spent that same amount of time on the Cougar football broadcasts – the final three on play by play. He is a longtime resident of the Inland Northwest who began his career as the Sports Information Director and radio voice of Gonzaga University basketball and baseball in the 1980s.
Two SWX Broadcasts: Local cable station SWX will carry two of Whitworth's games this season: the Homecoming game against Pacific Lutheran (Oct. 13), and the October 27 game against Pacific (Ore.). Sam Adams and Mike Peterson will provide play by play and color analysis. SWX stands for Sports & Weather Right Now and is owned by local NBC affiliate KHQ channel 6. SWX can be seen both over-the-air and through some cable services in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene, Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, and Yakima viewership areas. In the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area, SWX is found on digital channel 6.2, on Comcast channel 112 in Spokane and Time Warner channel 306 in North Idaho. Click here for a complete list of station numbers throughout the Eastern Washington/North Idaho region.
The Head Coach: Rod Sandberg has had a huge impact on the Pirate program in his first four years as head coach, posting a 31-10 record and leading the Bucs to the NCAA playoffs in year number two. He had 39 players earn All-Northwest Conference recognition since 2015. Whitworth's three-year record (25-6) from 2015-17 is the second-best three-year stretch in school history. Sandberg spent 19 seasons on the defensive staff at Wheaton College (Ill.), including the last 11 as defensive coordinator. Wheaton made the NCAA Division III playoffs five times during Sandberg's tenure as defensive coordinator. The team never lost a first round playoff game and reached the Division III semifinals in 2008 and quarterfinals in 2003. Sandberg's 2007 and 2013 squads led the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, regarded as one of the strongest football leagues at the Division III level, in scoring defense. The Thunder were second in the league in scoring defense five other times.
The Leopards: The University of La Verne is located in La Verne, California and is a member of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference. The Leopards were SCIAC champions as recently as 2015. They are coming off of a 3-5 season last fall, but almost assuredly would have had one more win if Occidental had not cancelled its season after only a couple of games.
Head coach Chris Krich is heading into his eighth year at La Verne and has posted a 26-37 record.
La Verne averaged 25.8 points per game in 2017, while allowing 31.6 points per contest. The Leopards averaged 332.8 yards and gave up 405.6 yards. Six starters return on each side of the ball.
Senior Josh Evans returns as the starting quarterback. He completed 62.3% of his passes for 947 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions in seven games. James Gonsalves, a junior, did not become the primary running back for La Verne until the final two games in 2017 and those final two games were stunning. He ran for 390 yards and six touchdowns. Junior Grayson Kline is the top returning receiver. He had 27 receptions for 275 yards in 2017.
Junior linebacker Conner Johnson will lead the defense. He had 47 stops, including five for losses of 21 yards, in 2017. Preston Carr (Jr.) has transferred into La Verne after leading Chaffey Junior College in tackles last season. Senior defensive end Austin Brown had 7.5 tackles for loss in 2017. Senior Derrin Hooks returns as the starting strong safety.
The Series: Whitworth leads the series, which began in 2004, 11-1 and has won the last four meetings. The 2013 game (25-20 Leopard win) was the first win in the series for La Verne and it came in the Pine Bowl. The Pirates won the very first meeting 43-23 in 2004 at La Verne and Whitworth is 6-0 overall at Ortmayer Stadium. The largest margin of victory in the series was the Bucs' 53-0 win last season.
Last Year: Whitworth earned its fourth straight victory in the series with the 53-0 win over La Verne on September 16, 2017 in the Pine Bowl. The Pirates jumped out to a 43-0 lead at halftime and cruised in the second half. Whitworth finished with a 587-224 advantage in total offense and a 31-10 lead in first downs.
Ian Kolste was the NWC's Offensive Player of the Week despite the fact that he only played two quarters of the game. He completed 29 of 36 passes (80.5%) for 302 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Leif Ericksen played well in his third straight game with extended backup minutes at QB. He completed 7 of 11 passes for 28 yards and a touchdown. Garrett McKay caught six passes, including two touchdowns. Whitworth ran for 244 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Tariq Ellis broke free for a 72-yard touchdown run, while Mason Elms also ran for a TD. Kevin Ramsay kicked his first career field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates went deep into the bench at several positions on defense, yet still maintained the shutout. Iain Black, Thomas Wilkie and Weston Kroes played extensively in the second half and combined for 16 tackles, including four for losses of ten yards. Jarin Manuel had a big game in the secondary, picking off a pair of passes to go along with two tackles. The Whitworth defense limited the Leopards to only 3 of 17 third down conversions.
Evans completed 6-14 passes for 31 yards for the Leopards. He was intercepted twice. Kline caught four passes for 39 yards. Johnson made six tackles, including one for loss.
Coming up next: Whitworth will host Chapman University on Saturday, Sept. 15th. It will mark the first meeting between the schools since 2015. The game will begin at 1:00 pm.