With bid within reach, Pirates aren't coasting

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Chad Wilburg and Whitworth defensive line rush the Central quarterback in a Whitworth athletics file photo.
Whitworth has held six of its seven opponents under 20 points on the season heading into the final regular season games vs. Lewis & Clark and Willamette.
Whitworth athletics file photo

By Brian Lester

Unbeaten and destined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015, one would think this is the greatest Whitworth team in recent memory.

Not quite.

“This is not, on paper, our most talented team,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “We had question marks going into the year, coaching staff changes and injuries. And all of a sudden, this happens.

“What a great reminder that it’s not always about talent and stats. It’s a group of young men coming together for a cause, and just committing and believing in each other. When you do that, great things happen.”

The ability of this Whitworth team to rally together and forge ahead has catapulted the Pirates to a 7-0 record and sole possession of first place in the Northwest Conference.

With one more win, either against Lewis & Clark at home this week or on the road against Willamette next week, the Pirates will clinch a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Whitworth is riding a 12-game win streak, tied for the third-longest in program history, and this team was confident long before the season kicked off that this could be its year to shine.

The past three years, the Pirates have finished behind national power Linfield in the conference standings. They grew tired of that and are poised to end the frustrating stretch of being second-best.

Rod Sandberg, wearing a headset, coaching on the sidelines during a game.
Rod Sandberg inherited a 4-6 team when he took over prior to the 2014 season. The Pirates have won 6, 9, 8 and 8 games in the four seasons since, plus a 7-0 mark so far this year.
Whitworth athletics photo

“We believed since last year that we were kind of over finishing second,” senior defensive end Chad Wilburg said. “We don’t like the feeling of getting so close and yet being so far away. Being in this position, the older guys, and even the younger guys, feel really good about it. We expected it and we know that it’s not over yet.”

Wilburg has been instrumental in the Pirates’ success. He ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 38 and leads the way in sacks with 11. He has helped anchor a defense that has given up 20 or more only once.

The last time Whitworth made the playoffs, Wilburg was a backup on the defensive line. Now, he’s a reigning first-team all-conference pick and is looking forward to the chance to play in the postseason again. He still remembers moments from that last playoff trip, which ended with a 48-10 opening-round loss to Linfield.

“I remember traveling and getting that extra-cold week of practice,” Wilburg said. “It was pretty fun and exciting and I know it meant a lot to the seniors at the time. It’s kind of come full circle. Now I’m a senior and I have a chance to go back to the playoffs.”

Motivation over the next two weeks is crucial for this Whitworth team. The Pirates are going to face two opponents that have combined for three wins.

It would be easy to overlook both opponents, to feel as if neither one presents a challenge. Sandberg reminds his team it doesn’t have that option. Not when there is still a lot that can be accomplished before the regular season ends.

“We have not clinched an outright conference championship and we have not clinched a playoff berth. We still have a lot out there,” Sandberg said. “We sure don’t want to share it. The thing I love about this team is they see Saturday as another opportunity to compete. We work for eight months, and we work hard, and we get nine or 10 guaranteed games. We better enjoy them and the make the most of them. Let’s not cheat the opportunity we have to go hit someone in a different colored jersey.”

The preparation doesn’t change from week to week for Whitworth regardless of who it plays. Sticking with that approach has helped keep the Pirates on track for the postseason.

“We have to worry about what we can control and prepare like we would for any other team,” Wilburg said. “Whether the team is No. 1 in the nation or No. 200-something in the nation, it doesn’t matter. We have to prepare for each week the same way.”

And if knowing what is at stake isn’t enough to keep the Pirates rolling in the right direction, Sandberg offered this for his team to consider.

“The reality is we can make the playoffs, but do we want to limp in or do we want to put the pedal down and accelerate into the playoffs? Regardless of the opponent, we want to play Pirate football for 60 minutes and continue to get better as a team.”

Whitworth has the confidence it can compete with anyone. Back in week three, the Pirates stunned then-11th-ranked Linfield 19-14, ending the Wildcats’ 23-game conference win streak. It was the first win for Whitworth over Linfield since 2007.

“It felt really good. Nobody on our team had ever done it,” Wilburg said. “The great thing was seeing our alumni happy for us, including former players. It’s a good feeling knowing we accomplished that.”

Sandberg, now in his fifth season, said beating Linfield was something he expected to do the day he was hired as the head coach.

“When I took this job I said we would beat them. I didn’t know when. I didn’t know if it would be one year later or 30 years, but I knew we would be relentless to beat them and become champions,” Sandberg said. “It’s pretty cool to see it happen. It’s cool to see we were relentless towards the cause, and that’s a credit to the coaches and the players, and a credit to the buy in and commitment to this program and to each other.”

Whitworth survived a scare last weekend, escaping with a 37-19 win over Pacific after going into the fourth quarter tied at 16.

Sandberg said big plays and the belief and trust the players have in each other has played a pivotal role in the Pirates’ ability to find a way to win games.

He’ll tell you there is work to do, that this team isn’t perfect. Cutting down on turnovers and penalties are among the improvements that need to be made. Still, he’s proud of what this team has done up to this point, that it has thrived under pressure and risen to the occasion when it’s mattered most. He’s thrilled his team is closing in on the postseason.

“It’s unbelievable,” Sandberg said. “To get an extra week or maybe more is an awesome thing. And these guys are playing for a home playoff game. The last time we went, we had to travel. It would be a great experience for this campus to have a playoff game at home.”

Wilburg is just happy the Pirates are poised to play football beyond Week 11.

“It’s something we’ve been working on and it’s nice to see the hard work paying off, and to see us come together as a team to give ourselves this opportunity,” Wilburg said. “We don’t just want to participate in the playoffs. We want to make a run. We want to be a team other teams don’t want to play.”

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