WALLA WALLA — Eric Bridgeland, Whitman’s second-year men’s basketball coach, has a bounce in his step as he approaches the freshly renovated Sherwood Center this winter.
Bridgeland’s initial season at the helm marked a solid step forward for the Missionaries, who finished the 2008-09 Northwest Conference campaign at 5-11 (9-16 overall) and in sixth place.
They had finished that high in the standings just one other time in the past 15 years.
The Missionaries, of course, lost the high-scoring Chris Faidley to graduation. Yet, Bridgeland believes his 2009-10 roster to be more talented and deeper than a year ago.
The returnees include seniors Jordan Wheeler and Jordan Brandon, junior Max Adcox and sophomores Brandon Shaw, David Michaels, Juan Pablo Alvarez and Nate Stone.
Shaw, a 6-2 guard, averaged 16.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals as a rookie. He ranked third in the NWC in steals (Faidley was second) and fourth in scoring (Faidley was first).
Wheeler, a 6-2 backcourt player averaged 12.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and a team-high 2.9 assists last season.
Wheeler will miss several weeks after a hernia operation.
Brandon is a 6-4 forward, who averaged 16 minutes off the bench last season with 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
Adcox is a 6-5 forward, who played 14 minutes per game in a reserve role last season, averaging 2.2 points and 1.5 rebounds.
Michaels is a 6-7 forward who averaged 18 minutes and contributed 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year.
Alvarez is a 6-4 guard-forward, who also started some games last season and averaged 14.5 minutes, 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Stone is a 6-4 forward, who played in 17 games as a freshman, averaging six minutes off the bench.
In addition Bridgeland has an incoming class of players that should make any coach optimistic.
"This is, without a doubt, the best class I’ve been associated with in my eight years at the NCAA Division III level," Bridgeland said.
"We are very proud to say that each individual that has chosen to join our family at Whitman is a relationship-based, character-driven winner," Bridgeland said.
Whitman as an NCAA Division III school doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.
"What we do offer, though, are life-lasting relationships," Bridgeland said.
"Our returners completely sold the incoming class on Whitman," Bridgeland added.
Not only does this class bring exemplary character to the Missionary fold, Bridgeland said, it brings a high level of talent.
"Every student athlete was on our ‘A’ list as impact players; not one of them was a fallback because we missed on another recruit," Bridgeland said.
"This doesn’t happen very often."
During the recruiting season Bridgeland aimed for at least seven players with ball handling and shooting skills, as well as versatility, to add to his returning core.
And he got ’em.
"We are a pressing/trapping/pressuring program," Bridgeland said.
So, to be successful Whitman must have players who can score inside and out, as well as defend inside and out.
"All of the new players have these capabilities," he said.
Peter Clark is a 6-foot-4 wing from Sinagua High School, Flagstaff, Ariz., (Grand Canyon Region Player of the Year, Daily Sun Player of the Year).
Bridgeland said Clark’s leadership qualities stand out and that he may challenge all of Whitman’s 3-point shooting records.
LuQuam Thompson is a 5-11 guard from Henry Foss High School, Tacoma (Narrows League Most Valuable Player).
Bridgeland said Thompson’s greatest weapon is his will to win and that he is a potential All-American candidate.
Brady Brent is a 6-7 wing from Mountain View High School, Bend (Intermountain League MVP, Class 5A first-team all-state, 2009 Oregon high school state high jump).
Brent led Mountain View High to a league title and to the Oregon state playoffs, and Bridgeland said he is "yet another relationship guy and is a perfect fit for our program’s culture."
Ryan Gilkey is a 6-7 forward from Woodinville High School (all-KingCo League three years).
Bridgeland called him "one of the best mobile big men in the state of Washington this past season."
Shoulder and knee injuries nag Gilkey last season, but Bridgeland expects him to see immediate action once he returns.
Drew Raher is a 6-4 forward from St. Ignatius College Preparatory, San Francisco (first-team all-West Catholic League).
Bridgeland said his intense hustle allows him to guard "inside and out, post and shoot the 3 with the best."
The transfers to Whitman include:
Justin Artis a 6-1 guard from Olympic Community College/Foss High (first-team all-Narrows League at Foss, second-team all-NWAACC North at Olympic).
Daniel Davidson is a 6-4 forward from Skagit Valley CC/Eisenhower High School, Yakima (second-team all-NWAACC East).
"We are a lot more versatile this year than last," Bridgeland said. "We have 8-9 players that are able to play multiple positions.
"Other than being young and on ground zero with our culture, and if we get a little better each day, we could be a factor in the end," Bridgeland said.
"In terms of our conference, if we improve a little bit every day, get better at what we do and stay together, we’ll have a legitimate shot to be there at the end, " Bridgeland said. "We’re looking to go win it all. That’s what we’re here to do. If we weren’t shooting that high, it wouldn’t be worth putting in the time."
Whitman opened on Tuesday with a 100-88 loss in Cheney against NCAA Division I Eastern Washington University.
The Missionaries return home to the George Ball Court in Sherwood Center to host a four-team tournament on Friday and Saturday.