PARKLAND – When the Pacific Lutheran football team clasps hands and steps out onto the football field in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for Saturday's 2013 season opener, a lot will be different from last season's first contest.
First, expectations are higher for the 2013 team entering the year than perhaps any previous PLU squad stretching back at least 10 years. But even bigger will be the absence of legendary coach Frosty Westering, who led PLU to four national titles during his 32 years as head coach of the Lutes and left an impact on the campus and community that has only grown in the 10 years since his retirement. Frosty passed away in April at the age of 85.
"We're just really excited to kick this season off," PLU head coach – and Frosty's son – Scott Westering said. "It's a pretty unique season for me personally, and in fact we're going to make the theme for this season – dedicate this to my father, who passed away this past spring – our theme is 'The Legacy Lives On In You.' My father touched so many people, and presently this team is so excited to honor him with how we take on this season."
The originator of the "Attaway" cheer implemented countless traditions and coaching methods that earned PLU football the moniker "The Nicest Team in Football" from Sports Illustrated may no longer be on the sidelines or in the stands, but the legacy has lived on at PLU with the younger Westering at the helm. Last season, for the first time since 2001, the Lutes continued another long tradition established by Frosty by advancing to the postseason.
With an impressive slate of returning starters – depending on how you count, the Lutes have 10 returning starters on defense, eight on offense and three on special teams – Pacific Lutheran is expected to be even better this season.
"We've got a great team returning from a national playoff team last year," Westering said. "This conference is loaded. We had one of the tougher conferences in the country last year."
Sure enough, Pacific Lutheran finished the year 7-3 in 2012, one of four Northwest Conference teams to reach seven wins. Linfield led the way with an 11-1 overall record and a perfect 6-0 conference mark, while the Lutes finished second at 5-1. Just like the classic days of the 1980s and '90s, Linfield and PLU topped the conference standings and found each other in the postseason. Unfortunately for the Lutes, that brought an end to their season as a late drive fell short in a narrow 27-24 NCAA first-round loss to the Wildcats in McMinnville.
Coaches expect a similar finish to the 2013 season, picking Linfield and PLU first and second in the preseason conference poll. Linfield ranks third in the latest d3football.com Top 25 listings, with PLU nine spots behind at No. 12.
Senior Mychael Tuiasosopo returns to anchor the defensive line for the Lutes, earning preseason All-America recognition after being named a second-team All-American in 2012. Jordan Patterson also received a preseason All-America nod at linebacker and defensive back Sean McFadden was named first-team All-Northwest Conference last season, giving PLU senior leaders in each level of the defense.
Around those three, the Lutes have returning starters Sam Lavis and Conor Gabbert on the defensive line, Dalton Darmody and Ben Kaestner at linebacker and Jonny Volland, Greg Hibbard and Connor Cummings in the secondary. Cummings will also return punts and kicks this season. Westering is excited to see what defensive coordinator Craig McCord has in store for opponents this season with such a talented and experienced group of players.
"Craig has a pretty unique 3-4 zone-blitz system that plays and wreaks a lot of havoc on how we play defense," Westering said. "With all the pieces of this and our exciting special teams, we're in a good place, I think, to start the season."
On offense the Lutes might really be able to bring a smile to Westering's face. An All-American tight end on PLU's first national championship team in 1980, he was the offensive mastermind behind the Lutes' three other national titles in 1987, '93 and '99. With the level of talent returning this year, Westering has mentioned the possibility of re-opening the playbook from those championship years.
That all begins at quarterback, and the Lutes have a good one in Dalton Ritchey. The 6-0 junior threw all but eight of the Lutes' pass attempts last season, tallying 2,723 yards passing yards and 19 touchdowns on 60.5 percent completions. His passing yardage was the fourth-highest season total in PLU history, and he also ran for 179 yards to give him 2,928 for the season – the third-most by a player in Lute history.
"He has much more of a grasp of our offense now, and we're very excited about the leadership that he brings" Westering said, leading PLU fans to daydream about the possibilities.
A quarterback is only as good as his skill position players and offensive line, however, and this is where PLU can really support Ritchey. Kyle Warner had a sophomore season for the ages in 2012, breaking the 36-year-old PLU receiving record with 1,264 yards on 67 catches. The 6-2 junior was named a preseason All-American and will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Kellen Westering, who caught 31 passes for 493 yards and four touchdowns last season while missing time due to an injury.
Both are healthy and ready to go this season, with (Coach – but don't call him that) Westering saying that the duo "looked great in preseason camp."
Sophomore Evan Nelson will step into the third starting wide receiver slot, while Brandon James returns for his senior season at running back after leading the Lutes with 497 rushing yards on 101 attempts last season. Niko Madison also returns in the backfield after rushing for 268 yards and tying Ritchey for the team lead with seven rushing scores.
Left guard Chris Edison anchors an offensive line that has four returning starters. Edison received preseason All-America honors, and both he and right guard Tevon Stephens-Brown were named all-conference last season. A pair of juniors will bookend the line, with Zach Phelps at right tackle and Parker Browning protecting the blind side.
With fall camp now officially in the rearview mirror, the Lutes will board a plane for Thousand Oaks on Friday to extend a rivalry with California Lutheran that has seen the Lutes play the Kingsmen in every season since Westering took over for his father as head coach in 2004. The Kingsmen have held the advantage in the series during that stretch, including wins in each of the past two years, but the Lutes will go into Saturday's matchup as the higher-ranked team. Pacific Lutheran ranks 12th in the latest poll, with CLU six spots back at No. 18.
"Our preseason camp went very well and we're very excited to kick this off down at Cal Lutheran this Saturday," Westering said. "Then pretty soon we'll be getting into our conference schedule that first weekend of October."
The Lutes will follow Saturday's nonconference rivalry matchup with the 2013 home opener against Redlands on Sept. 21 at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. They will travel to Wisconsin-Eau Claire the following week to wrap up the nonconference slate before opening the conference season at Linfield on Oct. 5. Home games against Lewis & Clark (Oct. 12) and Pacific (Oct. 19) follow before PLU closes out October on the road against Willamette (Oct. 26). The Lutes host cross-town rival Puget Sound on Senior Day Nov. 2 and conclude the regular season at Whitworth on Nov. 9.
But before PLU looks ahead in the schedule, the Lutes have to take the field against California Lutheran and see how they stand up against a top-25 team on the road. A radio feed will be live with Steve Thomas on the call on KLAY 1180 a.m. in the Tacoma area, with a link to the online audio feed available on the PLU Athletics website.
The legacy truly does live on in the 2013 Lutes, as PLU looks to carry on a tradition of excellence in every sense of the word.