The moment was textbook Bryce Hornbeck.
The Puget Sound Loggers’ offense had the ball deep in its zone Saturday, with the Whitworth Pirates football team clinging to a 16-12 lead on the road, at a stadium where the previous season it had not played all that well.
The Loggers faced a third-and-6 from their 7-yard line. Hornbeck saw a familiar formation, and right away he knew the Pirates’ defense had the right call for it.
It was a look the scout team had given during the week, and the scouts had burned Hornbeck for a big gain. But not the Loggers.
“When you work on something in practice so long and then you see it in the game,” the senior cornerback said, “it’s so rewarding.”
Hornbeck “body caught” the ball since, he said, “I don’t have the best hands,” and he took it 11 yards the other way for a Pirates touchdown. It gave the Pirates a 23-12 lead in a game they won 30-12, boosting their record to 3-0 during this shortened season.
“We’re in a battle of a game on the road and struggling offensively, and he comes up to make a play and break the game open,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “Playmakers make game-changing plays. They make big plays when you need them.”
Such big plays have become something of a habit for Hornbeck. He has two interceptions this season – Whitworth’s final contest is at noon Saturday at home against Pacific Lutheran – both against UPS.
“He had a pick on that play prior, when we played (the Loggers) here,” junior cornerback Colten Chelin said of Hornbeck’s interception in a 53-6 victory on Feb. 13, when he also forced a fumble to save a touchdown. “He just read it really well.”
In the Pirates’ last season, in 2019, Hornbeck tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including two in a 38-31 overtime loss to Linfield against Wyatt Smith, the Northwest Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
During high school at Sedro-Woolley, Hornbeck showed a knack for the big play, Sandberg said, with game-changing punt returns in some big situations.
Hornbeck has been a strong zone corner, one of the best Whitworth has had, Sandberg said, as far as reading an offense and settling into a zone, and he has made strides to improve in other aspects.
“Not the fastest guy on the team, but maybe the craftiest guy,” Sandberg said of the 5-foot-8 Hornbeck. “He’s worked really hard on his speed and his ability to play man coverage, and I think that’s made him a more complete player.”
He has also grown into a leader on the defense and the entire team, Chelin said, through a commitment to being more vocal and by example.
Chelin often tries to get a head start on film study by showing up early, but invariably Hornbeck – a big Tom Brady fan due to the quarterback’s work ethic – is already there.
“He’s probably one of the hardest working, most intensive people I know,” Chelin said. “Every detail matters to him.”
Hornbeck is aware of the influence seniors have, in what they say and what they do. He pointed to the example of Taylor Roelofs, a senior cornerback at Whitworth when Hornbeck was a freshman. Hornbeck said he hopes he can inspire the team’s younger cornerbacks in a similar manner.
For other seniors, Saturday’s game against Pacific Lutheran will be their last with the Pirates before they graduate and move on to other pursuits.
Hornbeck said he is leaning toward coming back next fall and taking advantage of the NCAA waiver that gives players an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
“These three games so far have shown we have an ability to be next level,” Hornbeck said of the Pirates’ defense. “Elite is what we’re aiming for, and next year is gonna be (another) opportunity to show that. I love the guys, I love the team, I love the program. Why not get another year?”
If that is the case, the Pirates will certainly take him for another year.
“For our team, we’re getting a guy with experience, a guy who brings confidence to everybody else,” Sandberg said. “Bryce is a coach in the meeting room and on the field, so you gain so much there.”