Coming off their Division III Northwest Conference title last fall, the Whitworth Pirates scheduled a tough preseason exhibition against the DI Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga used a goal in the first few minutes of the match and a clincher with six minutes remaining to nab a 2-0 win Tuesday.
The exhibition test was also a big one for Gonzaga, which opens the season Friday with arguably their biggest test of the year as they travel to face 10th-ranked Washington.
"It can't start any higher than that; and they are gonna be loaded. They are a good team, and we have our hands full, obviously," Gonzaga head coach Einar Thorarinsson. "Our guys will be ready. They have been waiting for that game."
To prepare for the big opener, the Bulldogs used a pair of games against quality lower division opponents, having also hosted Northwest Nazarene - ranked 22 after their first tournament appearance last year - over the weekend. Whitworth is currently ranked 14th in the DIII NSCAA poll.
"They were a good team. We were really impressed with them," Thorarinsson said of the Crusaders. "We did alright. I played all my players in that game - probably 24 guys - and all the freshman. In the end we had seven freshman on the field. I think in the end, the outcome could have been different, but I wanted to see guys in game so we played everyone. NNU is a good team."
Saturday's match was a 2-2 result against NNU, which was picked to finish third in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference this year.
On Tuesday, the Bulldogs jumped on the board quickly, taking advantage of a shaky start by the Pirates defensively with freshman striker Jake Kempf scoring just a couple minutes into the match.
"We almost responded with a goal five minutes after they scored," said Whitworth coach Morgan Cathey. "I think our guys were very nervous. We missed a little bit of our responsibilities that we talked about that they could force us into in the first five minutes, and then we settled into it and we created one or two good chances - but I thought it was a fairly even game from that point on.
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The extra training sessions and extra game showed early for Gonzaga, which controlled much of the contest, though Whitworth began to find their rhythm in the second half and possess the ball with an extremely patient build-up out of the back. The Pirates, though, just were not able to connect all the way through to the offensive third for a consistent look at goal, and it looked as though they would have to be content with a respectable one-goal defeat before junior midfielder Graison Le (Coeur d'Alene, ID) beat a pair of defenders on the right side of the area and scored with about six minutes left.
"The heat and the smoke in the air effected some of our guys and I had to pull them out early," Thorarinsson said. "That changed our rhythm a little bit. We started out pretty good and then it kind of went downhill in the first half. Then we couldn't get it back in the second half until when I subbed some of the guys back in for the last 20 minutes and we started to play again. So, a story of two halves. In the beginning of the first half and the end of the second half I thought we played pretty well."
For Whitworth, it was their first game against another school since their tournament run came to an end last fall in the Third Round.
"It's very early days. It's been a great start to the season from our guys," Cathey said. "We have so many returning players that know what we want to do - know what the Whitworth way is all about - and that takes a lot of responsibility off of me; and they are such great teachers that our players are teaching and showing the younger guys what should be happening both on and off the field. That is exceptional. I think we are in a really, really good place. Obviously, today didn't go as we had hoped, but I thought at moments it went really well. We've just got to just keep those good moments coming."
The game, narrowly escaping cancellation due to the poor air quality that has plagued athletics throughout the region, is the first of four quality preseason exhibitions the Pirates themselves have scheduled in preparation for what they hope will be another tournament-caliber campaign.
"Its just so great that we can get the competition that we got today. Obviously, Gonzaga makes things very difficult. Their work rate and their kind of blue chip mentality is so great and very difficult to break down; very difficult to actually get in situations where you're going be successful against them. You are going to have to really work for it.
"It was really unfortunate that our guys started out a little bit nervous and I think they finally settled into the game, but it took 45 minutes. They've got to learn from that. I think for us, that probably our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. If we are not confident in the way we play from the start of the game, it can really go the opposite way and be our detriment. Our guys need to learn that they've got to take the game to the other teams and they've got to imprint their style right from the start. It was great to play Gonzaga, and hopefully we gave them some things to think about when they go to play University of Washington in a few days."
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