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Wildcats deny slide off the pedestal

Rocky 0-2 start gives Linfield pause, but expectations stay high
by: , ROMBACH

McMINNVILLE - It has been 17 years since Linfield started a season 0-2. It has been 51 years since the Wildcats finished the season with a losing record.

The first situation doesn't necessarily lead to the second, but some observers are wondering if the Linfield magic finally might be wearing off.

Those in the Wildcat family aren't saying it, of course.

'When you start 0-2, people start to question things as far as how the rest of the season will go,' senior linebacker Phil Rombach says. 'But we have a really good attitude. We're expecting to have a winning season and make the playoffs and go from there. We might be 0-2, but by no means are we down and out.'

Two years removed from a Division III national championship, Linfield opened the '06 season with a 28-14 loss at home to Western Oregon under first-year coach Joe Smith. Last Saturday, the Wildcats fell 21-6 to seventh-ranked Hardin-Simmons at Abilene, Texas.

Linfield needs to win five of its remaining seven regular-season games to continue its NCAA-record streak. Making the postseason is a little more difficult proposition.

The Northwest Conference has too few teams to earn an automatic qualifier for the Division III 32-team playoffs, so there is little margin for error when, after a bye Saturday, the Wildcats begin league play Sept. 30 against Willamette.

'Our backs are to the wall for the playoffs,' says Smith, 35, elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach this summer when predecessor Jay Locey left to become assistant head coach at Oregon State. 'If we want to win a conference championship and go to the playoffs, we need to win the rest of our games.'

Linfield returns only eight starters from last year's team that went 10-0 until a 44-41 loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater in the national quarterfinals. Gone are All-America quarterback Brett Elliott, All-America receiver Casey Allen and leading rusher Mordechai Kotler. The Wildcats have managed only two offensive touchdowns in their first two games this season.

'It's tough to maintain such a high standard when you have limited experience returning at skill positions,' says senior offensive tackle Jake Lucey, a third-team All-America selection last fall. 'There's a learning curve we have to negotiate. (Against Hardin-Simmons), we could've had 35 or 40 points but shot ourselves in the foot when we had the chance.

'Our biggest problem was finishing - failing to capitalize on third and fourth down, an interception in the red zone, that sort of thing.'

The loss of Locey, who had an 84-18 record and six straight conference championships or co-championships in 10 years, isn't to be taken lightly. But the players profess confidence in Smith, a former All-America defensive back who has been at Linfield as a player or assistant coach since 1989 and served as defensive coordinator the past six years.

'We miss Coach Locey,' says Rombach, a 6-1, 220-pounder from Jesuit High. 'But we have the majority of our coaching staff back intact. I really like Coach Smith. He's a great guy to play for. He cares about his players. He's a tough coach. He expects great things from you, but you want a coach to push you to be the best player you can be. You can't say the reason we've started out 0-2 is the coaching staff. They're doing a great job.'

'Coach Locey was a lot of fun to play under and a brilliant coach, but he's gone,' Lucey says. 'We have to move on and work with what we have here. Coach Smith is one of those guys who commands respect without trying. People listen to him. He has taught us a lot of discipline. He'll be a very successful coach here in the years to come.'

Smith says he isn't getting worked up over the outcome of the first two games.

'Our players are confident in themselves and the program and are realistic about why we're 0-2,' he says. 'No. 1 is the quality of opponent, and No. 2 is when we played them. Losing as many players as we did created an inexperience factor that takes a while to compensate for. Had we played those two teams in a week or two, it might've been a different story.

'We're going to be a good team. The talent is there. There's no more pressure now than we ever have. We always feel we're capable of winning a national championship. Our focus will be the same whether we're 0-2 or 2-0. We'll work on getting better every day just like always.'

At the least, everyone in the program expects the streak of winning seasons to remain intact.

'We know we're too good a team to go 4-5,' says Lucey, who sustained only two losses in his previous three seasons as a starter - both season-ending defeats in the postseason. 'Not to sound arrogant or cocky, but we know we have the talent where we can easily finish the regular season 7-2 and make a run in the playoffs.

'We'll try to beat Willamette and get the ball rolling. Once this team picks up momentum, we're going to be tough to stop.'