Kyle Warner carries himself like a veteran player and wears a game face that reflects his competitive fire.
But he’s not alone.
Warner picked up such traits long before becoming a key sophomore receiver who will lead the Pacific Lutheran University Lutes (1-1) against No. 3-ranked Linfield (3-0) today at Sparks Stadium in both teams’ Northwest Conference opener.
“He comes from a really, really competitive family,” said Sid Otton, who coached Warner at Tumwater High School. “His parents can hardly sit by each other during games, they’re so competitive.”
Or as Warner put it: “My dad gets more nervous than I do before a game. No one can talk to my dad, he’s so focused.”
Warner’s mental toughness, ultra-competitive nature and comfort with the PLU system are qualities that Lutes coach Scott Westering doesn’t ordinarily see from a player in only his second season with the program.
Warner made an immediate impact as a true freshman, catching a team-best four touchdown passes. He finished 2011 strong with eight catches for 156 yards, including the winning 63-yard touchdown in a season-ending 13-6 victory over Willamette.
After two games this season, Warner has 10 catches for a team-leading 210 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s taken that next step,” Westering said. “Even though he’s a sophomore, he’s got that seasoned, veteran look about him in how he goes about his business.”
None of this is surprising to Otton.
Otton rates the 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver in the same, revered company as former Tumwater great Scott Gurnsey in terms of the program’s most special all-time playmakers.
Otton said both players shared the same confidence and competitive fire.
“I guess I’d put them both side by side,” Otton said. “They wanted the ball when it counted.”
Warner was the Class 2A state player of the year his senior year at Tumwater, making an impact as a receiver, safety and return specialist while leading the Thunderbirds to the state title in 2010.
But it was something Warner did off the field after his junior season that showed that he was more than a special player.
Warner convinced Otton that the team would be better off if he switched from quarterback to receiver his senior year. Otton obliged, moved Daniel Hinkle to quarterback while Warner put his focus on making big plays as a receiver, defensive back and returner.
“I thought he had a lot more talent than I did at the quarterback position in our offense,” Warner said. “I thought I could do more things for the team if I split out wide and played more defense. It made me feel more comfortable about the season.”
That sort of maturity makes Westering feel more comfortable about the team’s limited experience on offense. He sees similar qualities in other key players, a wisdom beyond their years.
Sophomore quarterback Dalton Ritchey, who roomed with Warner at the East-West All-Star Classic in Yakima after their senior year, is averaging 311 yards passing a game. Sophomore receiver Kellen Westering, the coach’s son, has a team-high 14 catches.
“We’ve learned how to play with each other,” Warner said. “We’re all really the same age. We’re pretty young and we’re also pretty talented. We discovered that the first game (a 37-23 loss to then No. 11-ranked Cal Lutheran). After that, we got together and felt we could do big things this year. We said, ‘Why not right now?’ I feel really good about where this team is headed.”
Warner said he picked up that competitiveness from his family. His parents, Rob and Debbie, were athletes in high school, and his older sister, Amanda, was the league’s most valuable player on a Tumwater volleyball team that also won a state title her senior year.
“You should have seen the look in her eye when they were losing,” Warner said. “She would not let them lose. I look up to her. She taught me you need that competitive fire.”
NO. 3 LINFIELD COLLEGE (3-0) AT PACIFIC LUTHERAN (1-1)
12:30 p.m. (PDT), Sparks Stadium, Puyallup
The Series: Linfield leads, 36-21-4, and has won the past 10 meetings – the longest streak for either school. The Wildcats won, 45-7, last season in McMinnville, Ore. PLU’s last win was 31-20 on the road in 2001.
What to watch: It is only two games, but QB Dalton Ritchey (43-for-74, 622 yards, two TDs) sure has more than a few Jake Locker-esque qualities to his game for the Lutes. For sure, he is a playmaker with his feet, but he made a few throws against then-No. 25 Redlands that even made his hard-to-impress coach Scott Westering blink twice. And, oh yeah – he started by completing 17 of his first 19 passes in that game. That revelation is what gives the Lutes a good shot at not only ending their long losing streak to Linfield – they could snap the Wildcats’ 20-game conference winning streak. To win, PLU will need to keep up. And since the Wildcats are allowing an uncharacteristic 24.7 points and 404.7 yards per game so far this season, the opportunity is certainly there for Ritchey to find big plays in the vertical passing game. Two trademarks of Linfield’s recent success have shown up already in 2012: Quarterback play (Mickey Innis is 61-for-119 throwing for 779 yards with seven TDs) and getting pressure on the opposing QBs (DE Brynnan Hyland leads the NWC with five sacks).
What’s at stake: Since it’s unlikely the Wildcats will lose two league games in a season – a win today could be the Lutes’ only chance to get to the NCAA playoffs. Both teams have had two weeks to figure out a way to snatch this all-important showdown.
TNT pick: Linfield, email@example.com