SALEM, OR 2004 was a year that could have gone in either direction for the Willamette University football team. After a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to eventual national runner-up, the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Texas, and a 20-13 defeat at the hands of Eastern Oregon, Coach Mark Speckmans team could have written off the rest of 2004.
Instead, the Bearcats reeled off six consecutive wins and qualified for the NCAA Division III football playoffs, firmly establishing themselves as one of the top DIII teams in the country as they finished the season with a 7-4 record and a playoff appearance for the first time since 1999.
Playing the 8th toughest schedule in the country, and the only team to play both of the teams in the DIII championship game (Linfield and UMHB), the Bearcats finished the season ranked 23rd in the nation after falling to Occidental College 28-14 on the road in the first round of the DIII playoffs.
As Speckman (pictured above) looks to the 2005 season, he sees an equally tough schedule ahead. Along with Linfield and UMHB, both at home, the Bearcats travel to Western Oregon, Azusa Pacific (ranked third in the nation in NAIA, and again play Southern Oregon University, this year at home.
Despite the loss of defensive stalwarts like Nate Matlock (1st team All-American) and Logan Lord (Northwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year), the eight-year head coach returns plenty of speed and experience to give him hope for the coming season.
Were going to be very fast on both sides of the football, said Speckman. Weve got good experience and good speed at the skill positions. Our biggest challenge is going to be replacing our entire defensive front line.
On the defensive side of the football, the Bearcats return four starters linebackers Megdy Khoury (SR, Elko, Nev.) and Phillip Sweet (SO, Albany, Ore.) along with defensive backs Wesley Randall (JR, Los Angeles, Calif.) and Tim Alton (JR, Oregon City, Ore.). But the Bearcats have five letter winners returning in defensive backs Ben Fennimore (SO, Salem, Ore.), Tyler Gill (SO, Fresno, Calif.), and Bryann Turner (JR, Jamestown, Calif.) and defensive linemen Patrick Fejaran (JR, National City, Calif.) and Ricky Thomas (JR, San Diego, Calif.).
Khoury and Sweet were the teams leading tacklers, each with 90 last season, and Speckman believes if his defensive line steps up, the Bearcats will be solid defensively.
On offense, the Bearcats appear loaded. Senior quarterback Cameron Walton (SR, Arroyo Grande, Calif.) returns for his second season as starter after throwing for over 1200 yards and five touchdowns in 2004. Walton also rushed for seven touchdowns last season.
Walton will get plenty of help in the backfield with the return of Quentin Brock (SR, Fresno, Calif.), flankers Steve Wilbon (SR, Stockton, Calif.) and Ryan Hernandez (JR, Portland, Ore.) and fullback Kevin Dean (JR, Weed, Calif). Backs Tristan Lockhart (Jr. Tacoma, Wash.), CJ Washington (SO, Spokane, Wash.) and Skylar Swinford (SO, McCall, Id.) will also compete for playing time this season.
The offensive line is anchored by returning starters Brandon Bennett (SO, San Marcos, Calif.) and Renato Felina (JR, Portland, Ore.). Corey Matthaei (JR, SO Fircrest, Wash.), Justin Cole (SO, Hillsboro, Ore.) and Jayson Vogt (SO, Twin Falls, Id.) all return to push for more playing time.
The receiving corps, though it will be speedy, loses Brett Meyer and Jeff Liepman to graduation. Speckman will rely on the likes of Jimmy Williams (SO, Gilbert, Ari.), Jonathan Irizarry (JR, Woodside, Calif.) Greg Goodenough (JR, Baker City, Ore.) and Michael Plank (JR, Stockton, Calif.) to shore up the receiving corps.
Were deep. Were fast. We have some good experience on offense and it will be just a matter of us coming together as a unit to be an effective offensive team, said Speckman. Weve certainly got the players to put points on the board.
On special teams, Speckman returns kickers Clint Moran (SO, Mission Viejo, Calif.) and Matt Bicocca (SO, San Andreas, Calif.), along with kick returner Plank, who had several big games last season.
Were also bringing in some very talented freshmen and a couple of transfer students who could make a solid impact right away, said Speckman. Like last season, were going to have to be ready to play from week one. Weve got a tough schedule, but I see no reason why we cant be every bit as competitive as a year ago.
Coaching Staff 2005
Head Coach: Mark Speckman is 41-30 in seven seasons as the Bearcats head coach. In 2004, Speckman moved into third place on Willamettes all-time win list when he passed his predecessor, Dan Hawkins.
Coordinators: Glen Fowles returns for his eighth season as offensive coordinator and ninth season as a WU football coach.
Nate Naggi joins the Bearcats as defensive coordinator after holding the same position at Quincy University, a NAIA program in Illinois. Naggi played football at the University of Oregon before coaching linebackers at Willamette in 2000.
Position coaches: John Horner (linebackers), Nate Oltmans (offensive line), Chuck Pinkerton (quarterbacks), Josh Scott (wide receivers) and Tanner Smith (defensive line) return as position coaches. Chris Prange, the Bearcats defensive coordinator for the last four years, moves into a new role as the defensive backs coach. Joining the staff are Tim Speckman (sweepers), Gary Hertzog (tight ends), Wayne Manu (running backs), Matt Perez (defensive backs) and Ryan Borde (linebackers.)
Sept. 3 Western Oregon Monmouth, OR 7:00pm
Sept. 10 Mary Hardin Baylor Salem, OR 1:30pm
Sept. 17 Azusa Pacific Azusa, CA 6:00pm
Sept. 24 Menlo (H) Salem, OR 1:30pm
Oct. 1 Puget Sound* Tacoma, WA 1:30pm
Oct. 8 Southern Oregon Salem, OR 6:00pm
Oct. 15 Lewis & Clark* Portland, OR 1:00pm
Oct. 22 BYE
Oct. 29 Pacific Lutheran* Salem, OR 6:00pm
Nov. 5 Whitworth* Spokane, WA 1:00 pm
Nov. 12 Linfield* Salem, OR 5:00 pm