One of these seasons, Linfield is bound to break through the glass ceiling and return to the NCAA Division III championship game.
Could 2014 be the year?
It’s been a decade since the Wildcats last slogged all the way through the five-week grind of the NCAA postseason, winning the program’s fourth national title over Mary Hardin-Baylor. That’s not to say Linfield hasn’t been close in recent seasons, because it has. Suffering just a single defeat four of the last five seasons - all in the playoffs – few teams in the country are as consistently capable as Linfield of not only making the playoffs, but advancing to at least the quarterfinal or semifinal rounds.
This fall is no exception. Reaching the championship game would be a first for ninth-year coach Joseph Smith, who welcomes back a dozen starters among his 53 lettermen. There are questions to answer at key positions, such as quarterback, linebacker and kicker, but Smith speaks confidently that Linfield will simply plug-and-play with its rising talent.
“We have a great deal of unrealized potential," said Smith, now 71-15 in eight seasons as coach. “If we can maximize the potential we have, I’ll feel very good about the season.”
Smith and the coaching staff face the task of retooling an offense that averaged an eye-opening 48.8 points per game the previous season. The Wildcats are unquestionably deep at receiver and on the offensive line, where they return five starters. Needing to break in a new quarterback is a challenge for any coach, yet Smith has three quality candidates to choose from in senior Matt Yarbrough, junior Tom Knecht, and sophomore Sam Riddle. All three signal callers are capable of fully piloting the offense effectively. Settling on a starter likely will take a few games to shake itself out.
A squadron of quality receivers line the roster, led by all-stars Charlie Poppen and Brian Balsiger. Balsiger caught a team-high 46 passes, Poppen had 40 and Evan Peterson pulled in another 31. The three receivers combined for 17 touchdowns. Lanky wideout Colin Nelson is positioned for a notable year while Erick Douglas III, Samuel Robinson, Kyle Harris and Oregon State transfer John Carroll all figure prominently in the aerial scheme.
At running back, the Wildcats feature a power back in Spencer Payne and speed and finesse in Tavon Willis. Robinson may also command a share of the carries. Sophomore Bryan Cassil and freshman Austin Brown are potential options as well.
The offensive line is captained by All-American Steven Schultz and features incumbent starters Jeremy Patrick at center and guards Eric Pitassi and Kekuapono Kalua. 2012 all-star Jacob Hanke is also back to man the other tackle after a year off. Up-and-coming blockers include Austin J. Lee, Thaddeus Cox, Keala Grace, Stephen Nnabue, Will Heck and Matt Matteo.
There are worthy options at tight end. Converted receiver Levi Altringer brings athleticism and soft hands to the position, joining letterman Conner Floan and promising freshman Grant Rubado.
Defensively, Linfield must appoint five new starters in the secondary and another two at the linebacker positions. Smith considers his defensive line “one of the very best in the country,” a unit that features all-stars Jeremy Girod, Marq Randall, Brynnan Hyland and Alex Hoff. Randall and Hyland sat out all of 2013 with injuries but should be able to reprise their earlier dominance. Providing additional depth on the interior line are senior Trey Farber along with freshmen Zach Grate, Josh Miller, David Brugato and Dakota Church. Joining Hoff and Hyland on the ends are senior Curtis Terry, junior Franklin Lime, and freshmen Jake Handran, Matt Craig and Asa Schwartz.
The Linfield linebacking corps is “athletic, aggressive and talented,” said Smith. Senior Westly Meng is a candidate to start after moving over from tight end. Last year’s starting rover, Mike Nardoni, makes a similar shift to the inside of the Wildcats 4-2 base formation. Juniors Eli Biondine and Derick Turner are ready to accept greater roles. Top newcomers include Kyle Chandler, Jake Reimer, Scott Skurdahl, Jason Farlow and Mitchell Kekel.
At rover, Keanu Yamamoto is penciled in to replace Nardoni, while Austin D. Lee, Tyler Tamayo and Nathan Sample could also see playing time.
Senior Jordan Giza is set for an all-star season at monsterback. Safety Mikey Arkans is expected to earn the starting job with Skyler Elgarico and Austen Dahl providing support. Mitch Lewis and Jordan Powell are the safety reserves.
Cornerbacks Chad Coburn, Kyle Belcher, Kennedy Johnson, Dylan Lewis and Kip Marstall are all capable defenders.
On special teams, Kevin McClean will handle the punting duties. Three kickers – Cayman Conley, Michael Metter and Theo Petropoulos – are in contention for the starting job on kickoffs, field goals and extra points. Newcomer Hunter Durante is a long-snapping specialist.
Ranked No. 4 in the preseason Top 25 poll, Linfield appears to have all the pieces needed to capture an unprecedented sixth consecutive NWC championship and advance deep into the NCAA playoffs. However, the schedule does the Wildcats no favors with three straight road games to begin the season. Back-to-back road trips to southern California to face Chapman and Redlands appear a formidable challenge for the ‘Cats right away. The two SCIAC teams a combined record of 15-4 last fall. The ‘Cats open NWC play Oct. 4 at Pacific Lutheran in another early season confrontation.
“There’s enough talent in the program to compete with anybody – and we’ve seen the best of the best,” said Smith. “It’s going to take some time. We have to develop some depth. If we can get close to playing to our full potential and stay healthy, I like our chances to have deep playoff run and measure ourselves against the best.”