With a record 59 straight winning seasons, Linfield has played in the postseason many times before. Yet this season is heartbreakingly singular.
The Division III Wildcats are playing for teammate Parker Moore.
The sophomore linebacker was fatally stabbed in a random attack at an off-campus convenience store on Nov. 15. The killing stunned close-knit Linfield College and the town of McMinnville, nestled in Oregon's bucolic wine country about 40 miles southwest of Portland. The Wildcats were devastated.
''If you've got a clear sky tonight ... look up and find the brightest star you can, and you'll know right where Parker is.'' sophomore linebacker Kyle Chandler, one of Moore's close friends, posted to Twitter a day after the tragedy.
On Saturday, the 10th-ranked Wildcats (11-1) will play at undefeated defending champion Wisconsin-Whitewater in the semifinals. Should they win, they'll play for the NCAA Division III championship on Dec. 19 in Salem, Virginia.
The Wildcats clinched their share of a sixth straight Northwest Conference title and a spot in the playoffs with a 59-0 rout of Pacific. Sophomore quarterback Sam Riddle ran for two touchdowns and threw for another.
But later that night, Moore - a business management major who played mostly on special teams - was attacked by 33-year-old Joventino Bermudez-Arenas at a local 7-11, authorities said. Later, Bermudez-Arenas returned to the store - his family said he wanted to surrender - and was fatally shot by police.
No one knows why Bermudez-Arenas targeted Moore, a cheerful 20-year old who served as a resident adviser. The two did not know each other.
''Just as they're at the high point of their season to that point, beating Pacific and winning the conference title, it happened. Everything came crashing down,'' said defensive coordinator Jackson Vaughan. ''Parker was a guy that everyone loved, and he was a great teammate. It was so hard on everybody.
''At the same time you had to get everybody regrouped and ready to play a playoff game that weekend. It was the hardest thing our coaching staff has ever had to do, and it was so hard on the guys.''
The weekend following Moore's death, the Wildcats hosted Chapman (California) to a packed house of fans wearing shirts bearing Moore's No. 35 and phrases like ''Play for Parker'' and ''Linfield Family.'' Moore's helmet was on the sidelines.
On the team's first offensive play, only 10 players took the field in a missing man formation as a tribute.
''It's hard to talk about it. It still hasn't really fully hit me, or probably some of the other kids or coaches on our team yet because we've focused on football. That's kind of what we did to help deal with it,'' senior linebacker Mike Nardoni said. ''It's nice to have that release, but at the same time, sometimes when you're out there on the field, it reminds you of things, too.''
The Wildcats spilled their grief on the field, romping to a 55-24 victory. The victory advanced Linfield to the second round against undefeated and perennial playoff contender Mary Hardin-Baylor, where the Wildcats won 31-28.
Then Linfield crushed undefeated Widener 45-7 in Chester, Pennsylvania, last weekend, with Riddle throwing five touchdown passes. That victory set up this weekend's semifinals against top-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater.
''We've been trying to put one foot in front of the other, day by day. And it's been really hard, with the grief and the angst, if you will, within the team. But being together has really helped,'' head coach Joseph Smith said.
Linfield's streak of 59 winning seasons is a record at any level. And while the Wildcats have been to the playoffs for six straight seasons, this is the first time they've reached the semifinals since 2009.
Smith, a former defensive back for the Wildcats who has been at the school for 25 years, has been named Northwest Conference Coach of the Year for the past six seasons.
His voice cracks when he speaks about Parker's death, saying nothing ever prepares one for coaching through something like this.
For now, the team has to be focused on honoring Moore the best way it can, by playing and creating another legacy, he said.
''What we're trying to do is honor Parker with how we're living every day, how we're practicing every day, and how we're playing every play of every game,'' he said. ''So that's been very helpful.''
The Parker Archie Moore Memorial Fund at the National Christian Foundation Seattle has been established by his family to provide a scholarship to a Linfield student who most exemplifies Parker's character and qualities. Contributions can be made at www.linfield.edu/parkermoore .