WALLA WALLA — Adversity, in the form of injuries, illness and otherwise sidelined athletes, often hampers the success of athletic teams.
Michelle Ferenz, veteran women’s basketball coach at Whitman College, knows the territory.
With the Missionaries’ 2009-10 season tipping off Friday, Ferenz takes the philosophical view about being shorthanded and some distance from where her players "need to be" for the opener.
Whitman opens this Friday and Saturday with its annual Kim Evanger Raney Memorial Classic.
"Right now we are facing challenges we typically do not face to begin a season," Ferenz said. "We started practices last month with seven players on the floor, we now have nine."
So speaking of adversity, Ferenz expects to open play Friday without senior standout Michelle Krall and sophomore sharpshooter Jennifer Keyes.
She will also be without one of her three highly touted first-year players, Emilie Gilbert.
Gilbert and her teammates will compete this weekend at the NCAA Division III national cross country championships.
"We hope for the best for our cross country team," Ferenz says. "It’s a great opportunity, and I know Emilie is excited about it."
Junior Jenele Peterson, a returning starter at guard, missed the first few weeks of workouts while studying in New Zealand.
Ferenz, however, said Peterson returned in good physical condition and would soon be in basketball-shape.
Often unable to practice with five-on-five, the team remains "behind where it should be," Ferenz said.
Yet, Ferenz looks at the bright side.
"We’re doing our best to catch up," she said. "Our kids play well together. We aren’t going to be the most athletic team, or the deepest, but we have enough talent and depth to do well if we can get everyone healthy."
Ferenz recalls Whitman’s 2005-06 team, which also started its season with a similar number of injuries.
"We played two conference games in December," she said. "The kids on that team were hard-nosed about it and made the best of the situation until we got more healthy. They worked their way through it and we made the conference playoffs that season. Those kids stayed focused."
Whitman finished strong in 2008-09 by winning five of its last six games for a third-place tie in the Northwest Conference standings.
NWC coaches recently predicted a similar third-place finish for the Missionaries this season. They picked George Fox to repeat as champ, followed by Puget Sound in second.
Ferenz also expects Pacific and Whitworth to compete well while other schools are more of a mystery.
Hilary White, Michelle Krall and Dawna Mello are the three seniors on the Missionary roster.
White, a 5-foot-9 guard, was named to the all-NWC first team last season. She led Whitman in scoring at 13.3 points per game.
"Hilary had a very good junior season and she is in great shape," Ferenz says.
Krall, a 5-foot-10 forward, averaged 10.2 points and 5.3 rebounds last season.
"Michelle got off to a great start last season until her knee slowed her down," Ferenz said. "She didn’t miss many games, but it got to the point where she couldn’t practice, and her play became more inconsistent. She is definitely a difference maker when healthy."
Mello, a 5-foot-5 guard, played in all 24 games last season, mostly in a reserve role, while averaging 13.3 minutes and 2.1 points per game.
"Dawna also came back in great shape, and she’s had a lot of reps in practice," Ferenz said.
Ferenz also expects more contributions this season from her four juniors — Jenele Peterson, Rebecca Sexton, Anna Forge and Jessica Brice.
"That’s four very good players in our junior class," she says. "They expect to make bigger contributions this year, and that’s what we expect."
Peterson, a 5-foot-7 guard, made the all-NWC second team last season while averaging 10.3 points, 3.7 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game. She led the NWC in free throw shooting, making 81 of 93 attempts (87.1 percent). She also was third in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in assists per game.
Sexton, a 6-foot-3 senior, earned all-NWC honorable mention recognition last season while averaging 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds. She shot 57.7 percent from the floor, the second-best mark in the conference, and she blocked 30 shots, the fourth-highest total in the NWC.
Forge, a 5-foot-10 guard from Wa-Hi, averaged 18 minutes off the bench last season and was one of the team’s leading rebounders. She averaged 5.4 boards and the same number of points.
Brice, a 5-foot-10 forward, is concentrating on basketball alone this year, after playing both volleyball and basketball a year ago, when she averaged 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds off the bench.
Jennifer Keyes and Kirsten Vaculik are the two sophomores on the squad.
Keyes, a 5-foot-6 shooting guard, averaged 6.8 points per off the bench last season while topping the team in total 3-point shooting, making 44 of 109 attempts (40.4 percent). She hit eight 3-pointers in a game against Walla Walla University to tie Whitman’s single-game record, and scored 28 points that night.
Vaculik, a 6-foot-3 center, played limited minutes last season but adds more size to the Missionary roster.
"Depending on what personnel are on the floor, Kirsten can help us," Ferenz said. "She has great length and size and moves really well."
The three first-year players on the roster are Mary Madden, Kelly Peterson and Gilbert.
"All three have a great work ethic and high basketball IQ," Ferenz says.
Madden and Peterson were teammates at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Peterson, a 5-foot-8 guard, was a four-year varsity captain and starter at Edison. She made the all-league first team as a junior and senior, after making the second team in her first two seasons.
Madden, a 5-foot-10 forward, is "further ahead defensively than she is offensively, and her rebounding is strong," Ferenz said.
Madden played on the Edison varsity in each of her high school seasons.
Gilbert, a 5-foot-7 guard, earned all-KingCo Conference 3A first-team honors last winter while playing for Bellevue High School.
"We’re looking forward to getting Emilie back from the cross country team," Ferenz said.