SPOKANE, Wash. — The Whitworth Pirates are coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory, including a 10-1 record and NCAA playoffs win, but they say they want more this season.
“There’s two sides of it,” said head coach Rod Sandberg. “There’s one, you get fat. Wow, we’ve arrived. You let off just a little bit."
"Last year’s team was hungry. That was our theme. We were hungry. We wanted something. There’s something really motivating about that," he continued. "The flip side is, ‘Now I’ve tasted something. I want more. Wow, it’s really cool to be a champion, and I want to have that again.’ I think we’re really focused on that second one. Man, we’re not done. We want more. We want to do this again and I think they’re pretty motivated.”
“I think showing ourselves what we can do and that we can compete with some of the best teams in the country just shows how good and how far we really can go,” echoed Post Falls native and defensive back Zach Hillman.
The team certainly has the talent to at least maintain last year’s dominance.
Seven players on defense and five on offense are returning to the team. Three of those offensive returners are lineman.
Another one of the offensive returners? Quarterback Leif Erickson, who completed 63% of his passes last season.
“My goals this season are less personal,” Erickson said. “My goals are more team. Just kind of having a good season as a team and finishing a strong senior year. Whatever that looks like for us. Just kind of just enjoying it."
"Last time I get to throw on the pads. Last time I get to play a sport competitively like this. Just having fun with the guys and getting to know them better. That’s kind of my goal," he added.
In terms of national recognition, D3football.com has Whitworth ranked 11th in the country in their preseason poll. That’s the highest ranking for a Northwest Conference team this season.
Whitworth refuses to get caught up in the hype.
“Those people that ranked us have never been to a practice. Don’t know one of my players names. That’s just all based on what you did last year," Sandberg said. “It’s fun for the fans. Fun for the parents. We’ve got work to do. We have this huge gap. This is our potential of what we could be. This is where we are right now. We’ve got to get work and we’ve got to close that gap, how much can we close that, so all that stuff doesn’t really matter.”
“It’s a great honor. You see it. It’s kind of impossible not to see it with social media,” Erickson said. “Being ranked 11th doesn’t give you your first win. Just because you come into a game, you’re ranked and the other team is unranked, it doesn’t mean they’re just going to walk off the field when it starts."
"It’s awesome but we have to go out and prove that. We have to go out and prove that we belong to be there. Honestly, we think we could be higher. Go out and prove that we deserve to be higher. Be in the top five and prove everyday that we are a great team," he added.
In terms of the schedule, the first time you’ll be able to see Whitworth at home this season is in October.
The pirates spend their non-conference games on the road. The first one is Sept. 7 at La Verne in California. The marquee game at the Pine Bowl this season is Linfield on Nov. 9.