REVIEW: After 4-0 start, Vikings season fades away
Jan. 17, 2003
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - After a fast start, the 2002 season proved to be something of a disappointment for the Western Washington University football team.
The Vikings were 6-4, giving them their fourth consecutive winning season and school-record 12th straight non-losing campaign. But after a 4-0 start, Western lost four of its last six games, and along the way had its streak of three consecutive league championships snapped, as it finished second in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference at 2-1.
"That record is below the standard we've set here," said Western coach Rob Smith (14 years, 95-46-1). "A lot of teams would like six wins, in NCAA Division I-A it gets you in a bowl game. But it was disappointing in the sense that we were so close to it being so much better.
"We were 4-0 and up 19-0 at South Dakota State, only to self-destruct in the second half. Then we go to Central (Washington) and lose in overtime, so we were 4-2 instead of 6-0 at that point. From start to finish, we were searching with this team. We didn't play the way we were capable of and that was the bottom line on both sides of the ball."
Through those first four games, the Vikings were averaging 42.3 points a game and had posted come-from-behind victories at Central Oklahoma (24-16) and Saint Mary's (31-28).
But at South Dakota State, three second-half turnovers led to a 24-19 loss, and the following week at Central Washington, the Vikings fell to their archrival, 35-28, after an overtime interception that would have given Western a chance to win the game with a field goal was called back by a penalty.
The brightest light of the season for the Vikings was sophomore kicker Michael Koenen (Ferndale). Koenen led NCAA Division II nationally in punting, averaging 44.9 yards a punt and booting a school-record 73-yarder against Saint Mary's. He was named a first-team Daktronics, D2football.com and Don Hansen's Football Gazette All-American, and a second-team Associated Press Little All-American.
Koenen, who was a first-team choice on three West Region all-star teams, was also effective as a placekicker, going 9-of-17 on field goals, with all but one of the misses being from more than 40 yards, and hitting 34-of-35 extra points. He extended two strings that started the previous season, making 40 straights PATs and eight consecutive field goals, both school records.
Senior cornerback Anthony Dalton (Olympia/River Ridge) was named an honorable mention All-American by D2football.com, and was selected to play in the Cactus Bowl, the NCAA II post-season all-star game. He was also one of four Vikings to be a unanimous all-GNAC selection.
The offense had some great moments, rolling up 62 points against Western New Mexico, and having, for the first time in school history, two quarterbacks each throw for more than 1,000 yards. But it also struggled, particularly in the later stages of the season.
"We were inconsistent offensively," said Smith. "Part of that was because we were playing a lot of young players. We were starting three redshirt freshmen and a sophomore quarterback at the end of the season, and I can't ever recall doing that before."
The biggest offensive weapon was senior wide receiver Greg Dykstra (Everson/Lynden Christian), a first-team GNAC and second-team D2football.com West Region pick as well as being a Verizon District VIII College Division All-Academic selection. Dykstra led Western in receiving for the third straight season, making 59 grabs for 825 yards and nine touchdowns, and early in the season, he became the first player in school history to have three touchdown grabs in back-to-back games. Dykstra finished his career holding school records for receptions (181) and consecutive games with a catch (38), sharing the record for career touchdown receptions (30), and being second in school history in receiving yardage (2,720).
He was part of a deep receiving corps that also included senior slotback Mike Westbrook (Lakewood/Lakes), who had 48 catches for 510 yards and three scores. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Andy Olson (Chehalis/W.F. West) also made a big impact with 18 receptions for 342 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a team-best 19.0 yards a catch.
"Greg Dykstra was Greg Dykstra, he had another solid season," said Smith. "I was pleased with Andy Olson. He showed late in the year that he was ready to step into the shoes of a Dykstra and be a go-to receiver."
Another key element of the passing game was senior tight end Adam Snel (Everett/Cascade), an honorable mention All-American and first-team all-region selection by Don Hansen's Football Gazette. Snel, a solid blocker who spent time as an offensive lineman early in his career, had 26 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
Triggering the passing attack were junior Josh Shimek (Pasco) and sophomore Steve Nichols (Stevenson). Shimek started the first six games and saw action in all 10, throwing for 1,544 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing a school-record 61.7 percent (129-of-209) of his passes. Nichols started the last four contests and had pass attempts in eight, throwing for 1,177 yards and eight scores. Nichols threw for 386 yards in the loss to New Haven, the fifth-best single-game mark in school history.
"It was frustrating not being able to settle on one of them, and both players were frustrated," Smith said. "Both showed the ability to do some things, they just need to work on consistency and making plays at big times. That's key at that position."
Three running backs saw extensive action, with redshirt freshman Duncan Sherrard (Seattle/Roosevelt) eventually emerging as the starter. Sherrard, who was named GNAC Freshman of the Year, rushed for 687 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Jake Carlyle (Olympia/Capital) added 268 yards, and junior Nyle Chambers (Sumner) contributed 156.
Leading the offensive line was senior tackle Joaquin Paratore-McNabb (Davis, CA), an honorable mention All-American and first-team all-region pick by Don Hansen's Football Gazette and a second-team selection for the second straight season by D2football.com. Paratore-McNabb, who started every game the last four seasons, was also a unanimous first-team GNAC all-star.
On defense, Western got off to a good start, allowing just 30 points in the first two games of the season. But by the end of the yearž things weren't so bright. The Vikings allowed a respectable 21.4 points a game, but gave up 410.9 yards a contest, the most since 1983.
"It was disappointing, because we entered the season thinking defense would be a strength," Smith said. "We did not play well up front - we allowed too many yards rushing and didn't get pressure on the quarterback. And our secondary didn't perform well, either."
Sophomore strong safety Rob White (Woodinville/Inglemoor), a Verizon District VIII all-academic pick, had team-highs of 99 tackles, three interceptions and four fumbles forced, knocking loose all of the fumbles in the Fort Lewis game to set a school single-game record.
Dalton had a strong season at one corner spot, breaking up five passes, intercepting one, and making 35 tackles, 27 of them unassisted; and at the other corner, senior Martez Johnson (Seattle/Rainier Beach), who started the last 32 games of his career, had two interceptions, five breakups and 55 tackles.
Junior middle linebacker Lann Olson (Chehalis/W.F. West), a D2fotball.com all-West Region second-team pick and a unanimous all-GNAC selection, was one of the most consistent performers on defense, making 88 tackles, 11.5 of them for losses, and recovering three fumbles. Junior linebacker Brett Thompson (Auburn/Auburn-Riverside) had a team-high 4.5 sacks and was a Verizon District VIII all-academic selection.
"Lann Olson moved back to the middle and had a solid season, Anthony Dalton was as good as any cornerback around, and Rob White came in as a first-year starter and played well," Smith said. "But good performances were few and far between."
With Koenen's performance leading the way, there were a number of positives on special teams. Dykstra was a D2football.com second-team all region pick and a unanimous all-league selection as a punt returner, averaging 13.6 yards a return and taking one 58 yards for a touchdown against Fort Lewis. On kickoff returns, Dalton averaged 23.6 yards an attempt and Johnson 22.8.
Despite the disappointments, there were a number of highlights. Perhaps none was bigger than the victory at NCAA I-AA Saint Mary's, as the Vikings marched down field in the dying moments and scored the winning touchdown on a 15-yard pass from Shimek to Dykstra with 1:11 left. The Vikings were also plus-2 in turnover ratio, marking the 11th consecutive season they've been on the positive side of that statistic.
"It was a year where nothing came easy for us," Smith said. "Calls went against us at inopportune times and we made some critical mistakes. But I'm convinced we'll get things turned back around."
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