Occidental College claimed its third consecutive Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship last year.
That seems to be the pervasive feeling in the Occidental program as the Tigers prepare for their Sept. 8 opener at the University of San Diego.
“Our goals are just a tad higher than we’ve been able to do lately,” said Occidental Coach Dale Widolff, who has led his team to the SCIAC title six times in the past eight years. “We’ve been able to win league, but to get to the playoffs you have to be 9-0 or 8-1.”
Occidental has not been to the NCAA Division III playoffs since 1985. Last year, with a team expected to contend for a postseason opportunity, the Tigers stumbled to an 0-2 start then finished 7-2 overall and 4-0-1 in conference play.
Gone from that squad are quarterback Tony Werbelow and linebacker David Hodges, both four-year starters and team leaders.
“Last year was probably a team that had a little more confidence because the kids could always turn to Hodges on defense and Werbelow on offense,” Widolff said. “We have to find out who we can turn to this year. Somebody has to step forward and make plays for you.”
Widolff is buoyed by the return of an experienced offensive line and tailback Gary Little, a sophomore who gained 898 yards last season.
The defense is anchored by lineman Brady Dargan, a three-year starter. Those players form the nucleus of a team Widolff expects to again contend for the conference championship--and the elusive playoff invitation.
“This team is as experienced as last year if you look at the offensive line and tight end,” Widolff said. “Offensively, the big question marks are quarterback and fullback. If we can answer that quarterback question, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Replacing Werbelow, however, will be no easy task.
“The best we ever had,” Widolff said of the two-year starter. Werbelow passed for 2,522 career yards despite playing in the Tigers’ run-oriented offense.
“We don’t want to be in a position where the quarterback has to win games for us,” Widolff said. “We want to put that burden on the other parts of our team and let the guy be more of a role player.
“We’re looking for a guy that makes good decisions and doesn’t turn the ball over.”
The leading candidates to replace Werbelow include junior John Selle and sophomore Phil Engebretsen, neither of whom have much experience.
Freshmen Derrick Williams from Crenshaw and Marc Dyer from Livermore are also battling for playing time along with junior Scott Thompson, a transfer from Butte College.
Occidental is expecting another big season from Little, a breakaway threat who averaged 112.3 yards a game last season and finished third in the SCIAC in rushing. Freshmen Darryl Dade and Charles Jordan will back up Little.
Much of Little’s success will be predicated on the performance of Alex Lebrija, who is making a transition from defensive line to fullback. Freshman Brian Madlangbayan also will see action at fullback.
The Tigers have an experienced group of receivers, including senior Rob Leinbach, junior Scott Sand and sophomore Mark Krock.
But the strength of the Occidental offense will be its experienced offensive line. Senior tackles Pete Tucker and Greg Garcia, senior center Sean O’Brien, junior guard Steve Johns and junior tight end David Grossklaus leave Widolff with just one guard position to fill.
Occidental’s defense, which allowed a conference-low 278.8 yards a game last season, not only lost Hodges but also Gary Etcheverry, who left after seven seasons as defensive coordinator to become head coach at Macalester College in Minnesota.
Mike Schmidt replaces Etcheverry, but the Tigers will continue to use a 3-4 alignment.
“Defensively, we need to find a defensive lineman, a quality linebacker and a fourth defensive back that can play right away,” Widolff said.
Dargan, the defensive mainstay, will be joined on the line by nose guard Kelly Bynum with Robert Patterson and Scott Mitchell competing for the third slot.
Despite the loss of Hodges, a Kodak All-American last season, Occidental still has some talented linebackers, including Jason Ramsey and Robert Lewis, who will start on the outside. Larry Schatz is back for his third season as a starter at inside linebacker; the battle for the other inside position is “still wide open,” Widolff said.
Three starters return to a secondary that was plagued by injuries last year and allowed several big plays that resulted in Tiger losses.
Ben White will start at strong safety with Craig Hartley at free safety and Rick Mock at one of the corners. Jason Minami, Mike Winslow, Andrew Schmitt and Bob Kennedy are competing for the other cornerback position.
Mark Collinsworth, an All-SCIAC selection in 1987 and 1988, returns for his fourth season as the Tigers’ kicker. Leinbach will be the punter.
Widolff expects Whittier, Redlands and La Verne to provide the most competition for the SCIAC title.