WALLA WALLA — After playing on teams that have averaged nearly 10 victories a season over the past three years, the five seniors on the Whitman College women’s soccer roster have grown accustomed to winning.
But those seniors know as well as anyone, building a winning program is only the first step on the road to winning it all.
"We have a strong group of seniors this fall, and they have strong expectations," veteran coach Scott Shields said.
"Their sights are set on winning a conference title. We have the players to compete at the top of this conference, but it won’t be easy by any means. We need to do everything right to give ourselves a shot at winning it all."
Whitman was in second place in the Northwest Conference standings midway through the season last fall, but a few injuries proved costly. The Missionaries limped home in third with a 9-6-1 conference mark.
Five players, including four full-time starters, are gone by way of graduation, but Whitman returns an excellent nucleus anchored by two of the best players in the conference, all-NWC first teamers Corina Gabbert and Courtney Porter.
"We have a good group of returning players, and we’ve brought in a talented recruiting class for a second straight year," Shields said. "We are a stronger team this year, top to bottom. If we can maintain a high level of maturity and stay focused, this group can be special."
The University of Puget Sound, the defending NWC champ, is the consensus pick to win another title this fall, according to a preseason coaching poll. Whitworth was tabbed for second with Whitman picked for third.
"There’s no question that UPS is the team to beat, but we played them tough last season," Shields said. "We expect to give them a good battle again this year."
Whitman plays its first two non-conference games at home, starting with a battle against Northwest University at 5 p.m. Friday. The Missionaries then host Northwest Christian University next Wednesday.
Whitman also plays its first three NWC games at home, beginning with a skirmish with Whitworth on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
The Whitman offensive attack revolves around Gabbert, a 5-8 senior who earned all-league honors last fall for the second time in as many seasons.
Playing through an injury during the second half of the conference season, Gabbert led Whitman in scoring with 13 goals and one assist. She was second in the NWC in both goals scored and in game-winning goals with seven.
"Corina is one of those special players who can pretty much do anything you ask on the soccer field," Shields said. "You could put her into any position, except maybe for goalkeeper, and she’d probably earn all-conference honors. She has speed and athleticism; she can manipulate the ball, and she can hit the ball hard. She is very, very good in all phases of the game."
At the other end of the field, Porter anchors the Missionary defense as an athletic and imposing 6-foot goalkeeper. She posted eight shutouts last fall, which led the NWC for a second consecutive season. She also topped the conference in save percentage and was second in goals against average.
"Once in a great while, coaches are lucky enough to have a goalkeeper like Courtney come along," Shields said. "Her position is the most important one on the field, but even as a first-year player, she was starting games for us. When you are both tall and athletic, it makes it that much tougher for the other teams to score.
"Plus, Courtney has good hands and her communication skills are good. She commands the box back there."
Liz Forbes, a senior midfielder, is back for her third season as a starter.
"Liz is one of those quiet, no-nonsense players who also happen to be super competitive," Shields said.
"She’s strong and has a Nordic ski background, so she has an engine that allows her to run all day long. She never takes or asks for a break. She just keeps working. It’s great to have that kind of player on the field."
Whitman’s other two seniors, DeeDee McCormick and Kendall Shibuya, are kicking off their third seasons for the Missionaries, although both players missed one season along the way.
McCormick, a rugged defender, is a "tremendous story," Shields said, "in that she didn’t quite make the team in her first year, so she worked harder. She played quite a bit last year as a junior and will be starting for us this fall. DeeDee is a great athlete; fit and fast and very tough."
Shibuya, a midfielder, has made a surprisingly strong return to soccer after spending all of her junior year on foreign study in Japan.
"Kendall has been a great surprise for us this fall," Shields said. "You never know what’s going to happen when a player is away from soccer for an entire year, but she came back and proved herself in a big way. She’s super fit, and she has matured as a player in ways that are great to see."
Backing up the seniors is a small junior class — just two players, in fact, in defender Kate Newman and forward Kristen Innes.
Amy Hasson, a physical 5-foot-6 forward, leads the Missionary sophomore class. As a college rookie last fall, she was second on the team in scoring with five goals and three assists.
Libby Watkins, a sophomore defender, started all 19 of Whitman’s games last fall in her collegiate debut. And sophomore Kate Potter started eight games last fall despite struggling with injuries for much of the season.
Taylor Chock and Marisol Fonzeca, two sophomore midfielders, are also back for their second seasons.
Shields, now in his 16th season, welcomes a first-year class of six players: goalkeeper Megan Watson (Granada Hills, Calif.); forwards, Emily Berg (Eagle, Idaho) and Stephanie Burk (Fall City, Wash.); and midfielders, Julianne Masser (Boise) and Jaclyn Rudd (Seattle).