A bounty of proven talent, notably at running back, receiver, linebacker and the defensive secondary, has Linfield believing it could be one of two finalists playing for a NCAA Division III national championship at season’s end.
Yet as the Wildcats have learned in recent seasons, the five-week march through the Division III playoffs becomes a survival of the fittest, where only the deepest and most durable teams advance beyond the quarterfinals. Those reaching the championship game are the ones fortunate to elude key injuries and catch some breaks along the way.
“No question, the last four years we have had national title-contending teams,” said Wildcats coach Joseph Smith, starting his eighth season. “The difference is, for Linfield to win a national championship coming out of the West Region, we have had to beat three Top-5 teams to get to the finals. When we have gotten to those late rounds, we are beat up physically and there is little margin for error.”
Playoff possibilities aside, Smith and the Wildcats know not to get too far ahead of themselves, instead focusing on each day’s priorities and the opponent at hand.
As has become its custom, Linfield faces a daunting early season schedule. The 2013 slate presents a grind of three long road trips in the span of five weeks and includes rematches against both a regional and a conference nemesis, each with something to prove after recent defeats at the hands of the Wildcats.
The first four games include teams with winning mindsets, playoff traditions and a combined 2012 win-loss record 27-11. All four opponents – Hardin-Simmons, Cal Lutheran, Case Western Reserve and Pacific Lutheran – recognize that a win over Linfield could catapult their season to lofty heights.
“We have to be playoff ready from Game 1,” said Smith. “Hardin-Simmons is going to be very good and they are going to be extremely motivated to give us everything they’ve got. Our Game 2 opponent (Cal Lutheran) is going to be just as good. Case Western and PLU are going to be ready to give us their A games, too.”
Obviously, a good start is paramount to the Wildcats’ chances of extending the nation’s longest all-time streak of consecutive winning seasons to 58. And a strong finish is vital, too, if the Wildcats are to secure a fifth straight Northwest Conference title and the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs.
Linfield must find a replacement for graduated quarterback Mickey Inns, who passed for over 3,200 yards and 30 touchdowns in leading the Purple and Cardinal to an 11-1 record last season. With solid play quarterbacking the team during spring and fall practices, senior Josh Yoder has earned the starting job heading into the opener against Hardin-Simmons. Junior Matt Yarbrough stands waiting in the wings and is fully capable of running the offense effectively. Both were understudies to Inns the past two seasons.
The Wildcats are overflowing with talented and eager running backs, more so than perhaps at any time in program history. Backfield coach Gary Thorson, a former Linfield ball carrier himself, has the difficult task of allotting playing time between established veterans and several fast-emerging stars.
Production at the tailback position is expected to revolve around Josh Hill, whom Smith calls a legitimate candidate for the Gagliardi Trophy. Hill returns healthy after missing the final nine games of 2012 with an injury. He recorded three consecutive 100-yard rushing games before injuries ended his season in Week 4.
When Hill on the sidelines, John Shaffer stepped in as a freshman to lead the Wildcats in rushing. Tavon Willis, also a sophomore this fall, has shown blazes of brilliance in fall workouts and is likely to turn heads once his number is called. Add to the mix touted freshman Spencer Payne, and the Wildcats appear loaded with enough speed, agility and power to roll up some impressive offensive numbers this fall.
Opening holes along the offensive line are four returning starters. Tackle Steven Schultz returns after consecutive NWC all-star seasons. Center Jeremy Patrick and guard Eric Pitassi are also back with a season’s worth of starting experience under their belts. Jesse Archambault steps into a starting role at the other tackle position. Kekuapona Kalua and Owen Fritz are much improved from a year ago and Thaddeus Cox is considered a rising talent.
The Wildcats are solid at tight end with returning starter Jacob Priester joined by wily veteran Westly Meng and talented sophomore Conner Floan.
Linfield is expected to continue to strive for offensive balance with a passing game that features a host of star-caliber receivers. First team NWC all-star Charlie Poppen is as good as any pass catcher in the conference, Smith said. Rising star Colin Nelson stands poised for a breakout year. Experienced lettermen David Sigler, Evan Peterson, Conner Varnell and Derek Priestley are joined by skilled wideout Brian Balsiger, a transfer from Portland State.
Once all the pieces are put together, it’s likely another rewrite to the record book is due this fall.
Linfield’s defense should again be among the nation’s best, though optimism is a bit tempered after the Wildcats lost a pair of top-tier defensive linemen. The Wildcats return 10 starters from last season’s squad that led Division III in sacks and was No. 1 in the NWC in total defense.
Defensive coordinator Jackson Vaughan has an array of talent to call upon, including eight seniors among his 11 projected starters. Linebacker Dominique Forrest, last season’s D3football.com West Region Defensive Player of the Year, returns to anchor the middle of the defense. The Wildcats also welcome back defensive tackle Tyler Steele, a 2011 All-American, who returns after missing the majority of last season with an injury.
Linfield starts the season without three returning all-stars, two lost to injury and another a result of suspension. All-America defensive end Brynnan Hyland, who led the nation in sacks as a junior, was lost for the season after suffering a serious leg injury during fall camp. All-NWC tackle Marq Randall was sidelined for the season when he broke bones in his foot while leaping into a river. And starting safety Colin Forman will miss the first two games for disciplinary reasons.
Still, the Wildcats remain potent. Steele is expected to be a disruptive force as he returns to the form that placed him among the best at his position two seasons ago. The defensive line also features returning starter KeAlii Poomaihealani plus rotating reserve Michael MacClanathan at end, not to mention experienced tackles Mike Maierhofer, Jeremy Girod and Trey Farber. Sophomore Conner Williams should also contribute on the line.
The linebacking corps is among the nation’s finest. In addition to Forrest, the Wildcats can unleash the speed and physicality of Tyler Robitaille and Tim Edmonds with lettermen Louis Colasurdo and Eli Biondine providing excellent depth behind them. Versatile rover Mike Nardoni gives Vaughan a lot of options schematically while sophomores Keanu Tamamoto and Tyler Tamayo stand ready off the bench.
The senior-laden secondary is another source of strength for the ‘Cats. In addition to first team all-stars Forman and monsterback Kyle Wright, Linfield features do-it-all playmaker Ian Zarosinski, who has the savvy and skill to play any backfield position. Jordan Giza and Logan Krellwitz provide relief with promising freshmen Mikey Arkans and Skylor Elgarico expected to see action in some capacity right away.
Perhaps the Wildcats’ greatest unknown is the kicking game. Senior Josh Repp and junior Jorden Walker are battling for the starting jobs at both kicker and punter. Talented newcomers Michael Metter and Cayman Conley could also contribute as the season moves forward.
Hill, Willis and Payne are likely to shuttle duties as kickoff and punt returners.
Add it all up and Linfield should again be among the 5-6 legitimate teams in the national championship conversation. Whether the Wildcats can take the next step to the NCAA semifinals or finals is a question that will be answered in the coming month. And though not often discussed, the vision of a fifth national championship is enough to keep all hands pulling in the same direction.
“All our guys want to contend for a title, that’s one of the main reasons they are at Linfield,” said Smith. “Teamwise, they are mature enough to know it’s all about the present and preparing for and playing in the game at hand.”
The season starts Sept. 14 in the heat and humidity of Abilene, Texas, against a capable Hardin-Simmons squad.