2003 Review: In midst of struggles, Vikings close strong to win GNAC title
Jan. 27, 2004
Bellingham, Wash. - The 2003 season may not have been the best of years for the Western Washington University football team. After all, the Vikings suffered their first losing record since 1990. But the successes achieved in the final three games, and the manner in which they were achieved, softens the pain and provides bright hopes for the future.
The Vikings had lost six of their first seven games and had been beaten handily in the previous two weeks. When the players arrived for their usual Sunday night lecture hall meeting, they were told to go to Carver Gym instead.
With the team gathered, Coach Rob Smith pointed out the championship banners on the wall. He told them, "I promise that if you stick together, we'll be able to celebrate with a banner up there."
And with that, the Vikings went out and won their final three games, all Great Northwest Athletic Conference matchups, to finish 4-6 overall and claim a league championship for the fourth time in five years with a 3-0 mark in the GNAC.
"Everyone was frustrated and disappointed at that point," said Smith, who earned GNAC Coach of the Year accolades. "It was very important to have something to focus on. We couldn't do anything about what had taken place until then, but it was a real testament to our kids to pick themselves up, go out and get the job done."
The Vikings, who had been off to their worst start in 18 years, began the recovery with a dramatic 17-16 Cascade Cup victory over Central Washington, as third-string quarterback James Monrean (Bellingham/Sehome), a redshirt freshman pressed into service because of injuries, directed a game-winning drive in the final minute, helped by a phenomenal one-handed catch and run of 52 yards by sophomore wide receiver Andy Olson (Chehalis/W.F. West). Western then claimed a 34-20 triumph at Humboldt State, and closed the season with a 17-13 triumph over Western Oregon, stopping the Wolves within 10 yards of the goal line on two drives in the final five minutes.
"We've won other championships, but we did so with championship-caliber teams," Smith said. "This wasn't the most talented team in our conference, so to find a way to get it done was something special."
Offensively, the Vikings had some bright moments. Western was ranked second nationally in passing offense through the first five games, and ended up 26th overall at 260.7 yards a game. But it was the running game that found its stride to provide late-season success, as the Viking averaged 179.7 yards rushing in the last three contests, compared to 123.1 for the full campaign.
Olson was the brightest light in Western's offense, establishing himself as a go-to receiver in the tradition of Chris Nicholl, Ben Clampitt and Greg Dykstra. Olson had 64 receptions for 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns, notching the third-best single-season reception mark in school history and the fifth-best yardage total, and ranking ninth nationally in NCAA II in receiving yardage (106.3 avg) and 17th in receptions (6.4).
Olson, who was a second-team Don Hansen's Football Gazette West Region all-star, first-team all-GNAC choice and D2football All-America honorable mention, had four 100-yard receiving games, and had three of the top 16 efforts in school history in consecutive games, with the best being an 11-reception, 199-yard performance in an overtime victory over Saint Mary's. He already ranks seventh in school history in career receiving yards with 1,405 and sixth in touchdown receptions with 12.
"It was not surprising he had that kind of year" Smith said of Olson. "When you combine good ability with great competitiveness, that's what you get. Make no mistake, he's our go-to guy and he wants to be that guy."
Senior Ryan Van Diest (Lynden) started the first five games at wide receiver, making 16 grabs for 252 yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Senior slotback Nate Kuhns (Yakima/Eisenhower) added 26 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown, as the Vikings had eight players with 10 or more receptions. The receiving corps was aided by a strong set of tight ends, led by junior Rick Carte (Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas), a unanimous first-team GNAC all-star who had 17 receptions for 158 yards and five scores. Carte tied a school single-game record with three touchdown receptions at Humboldt State.
At quarterback, senior Josh Shimek (Pasco) and junior Steve Nichols (Stevenson) shared time for the second consecutive season. Nichols made seven starts, completing 112-of-216 passes for 1,484 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. Shimek, who missed two games with a shoulder injury, completed 75-of-141 attempts for 917 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Third-stringer Monrean saw action under center in three games, throwing for 175 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
At running back, sophomore Duncan Sherrard (Seattle/Roosevelt) was a first-team all-GNAC pick as well as a CoSIDA District VIII Academic all-star, rushing for 760 yards and three touchdowns on three carries and adding 193 yards and three scores on 16 receptions. He already ranks seventh in school history in career rushing with 1,447 yards. Sophomore Jake Carlyle (Olympia) also saw extensive time, adding 418 yards and five touchdowns on 97 attempts. They became the first duo to each have 100 yards rushing in a game for Western since 1987, as Carlyle had 143 yards and Sherrard 131 in the triumph at Humboldt State.
The improvement of the rushing game near the end of the season was a product of improved offensive line play. Anchoring the line was senior guard Jon Pagan (Los Angeles, CA/El Segundo), who earned first-team all-GNAC honors and was the only offensive lineman to start all 10 games.
"We were able to re-establish the run as an important part of our attack in the last three games," Smith said. "Sherrard and Carlyle are as good as any backs in our league. Our success offensively revolves around our ability to run the ball. It takes pressure off our quarterbacks and forces teams not to double-team Andy Olson."
The defense faced an enormous task, going up against three of the top 12 teams in total offense in NCAA II in the first six games of the season. Overall, Western gave up 424.8 yards and 32.8 points a game. But again, those were numbers that changed in the last three contests, as the Vikings gave up averages of just 341.3 yards and 16.3 points a contest.
"At the end of the year, we played the type of defense we've played in the past," Smith said. "That's how we're going to win games here - we need to win 17-13, 17-16 type games."
Olson, Andy's older brother, was named an honorable mention All-American by Dopke.com. He had 83 tackles, including team highs of 11 for loss and four sacks. Olson led an all-senior linebacker trio that started all 10 games. Jesse Looker (Puyallup) was third on the team in stops with 58, including 9.5 for loss, and Brett Thompson (Auburn/Auburn-Riverside), a CoSIDA District VIII Academic all-star, had 51 and added a team-high two fumble recoveries.
White, a CoSIDA District VIII Academic all-star, was often the only returning letter winner on the field in the secondary. He led Western in tackles for the second straight year with 90, ranking 14th nationally in solo tackles (6.1), and shared the team lead in interceptions with two and passes defensed with seven.
Redshirt freshman Sly Whitfield, Jr. (Seattle/Garfield) started five games at cornerback, making 21 tackles and having two interceptions. Cornerback Bryan Jarrett (Puyallup) and free safety Justin Coronado (Walla Walla) became the first true freshmen to see action for Western since Kuhns did so in 2000. Jarrett made four starts, notching 30 tackles and leading the Vikings in passes broken up with seven. Coronado had 27 tackles and one interception, leading Western in tackles in two games late in the season.
Tackles Brad Mann (Redmond/Lake Washington) and Nick Ball (Olympia) and end JeVarian Gamble (Lynnwood), all seniors, made significant contributions along the defensive line, with Ball making 32 stops, 8.5 of them for loss, to earn second-team all-GNAC honors. Sophomore end Joey Joshua (Ferndale) was also a second-team all-league pick, making 43 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and batting down four passes.
Junior Michael Koenen (Ferndale) handled all placekicking and punting duties for the third consecutive year, and while his numbers were down slightly from 2002, they were still impressive. Koenen, who led NCAA II in punting as a sophomore, was fourth nationally at 43.2 yards a punt, earning second-team all-GNAC status and honorable mention All-America recognition from D2football.com. A first-team all-league placekicker, he was 26-of-28 on extra points, having a school-record streak of 44 successful conversions snapped early in the year, and 9-of-20 on field goals, a mark held down by 10 of his attempts coming from 45 yards or more. Koenen also sent 16 kickoffs for touchbacks.
"Mike had a good year, but for him it was a disappointing one," Smith said. "A lot of teams would be happy with his numbers, but our expectations, and his, are above what he did. He had a lot of misses from outside 45 yards, which shows the confidence we have in his talent."
Olson averaged 10.2 yards on 13 punt returns to earn second-team all-league recognition, and Carlyle and redshirt freshman Matt Wilson (Auburn) shared kickoff return duties. Carlyle averaged 22.5 yards on 20 returns to get first-team GNAC all-star honors, Wilson 20.8 on 19. Smith also said he was pleased with the coverage units, in particular the performance on kickoff coverage late in the season.
A major highlight of the campaign came on Oct. 4, when Western met arch-rival Central Washington in the first Battle in Seattle, which drew 16,392 at Seahawks Stadium, a record for a non-Division I football game in the state of Washington.
One big problem Western had through the first part of the season was turnovers. The Vikings ended up minus-8, the first time since 1990 (not coincidentally, their last losing season) they had more turnovers than takeaways. But as with much about the 2003 campaign, it turned around the last few games. Western was minus-17 through the first six games, but plus-9 over the last four.
That change in direction clearly played a part in Western's late-season success. It also serves as a symbol of the winning football the Vikings played at the end of the year.
"We found a way to turn things around," said Smith. "We finished with three straight wins, two of which were hard-fought nailbiters. It gives us great momentum going into the off-season. We could have been talking about a 2-8 season, but instead, we're conference champions, we have the Cascade Cup, and have three straight wins, all with a very young football team."
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