WALLA WALLA - The third season under head coach Eric Bridgeland may prove to be the ultimate turning point for the Whitman men's basketball team thanks to a stacked roster that's coming off a 12-13 campaign, leaving good reason to believe that with a strong returning core this could be only the second time in the last quarter century that the Missionaries top the .500 mark.
A trio of juniors - three of Bridgeland's first recruits who arrived on campus around the same time he did in 2008 - figure to be the backbone and leaders of the team.
Guard Brandon Shaw (6 feet, 2 inches), forward David Michaels (6-7) and swingman Juan Pablo Alvarez (6-4) all enter their third season with one goal in mind - "March."
"We know we have a lot more depth than we have had the last two years, and the third year of a program under a coaching staff is often when things start to click because it's when the kids you recruited have been getting familiar with your system," Bridgeland said. "Already, even having just started practicing, the guys just keep saying ‘March' because they're so focused on doing what it takes to keep playing until then."
Rarely in Missionary basketball history has it seemed like a possibility that Whitman could make the NCAA Division III Tournament, but as the progression of Bridgeland's program has continued, Whitman has improved from the five wins it posted the year before he arrived with his big three to the 12 wins they stacked up last year, coming within a late Linfield push in the season finale to drop them just below .500 with a season-ending loss.
"Brandon and I have a bond because we kind of got to know the campus together when we were new," Bridgeland said of Shaw. "The progression he has made over the last two years is impressive. He cut 50 turnovers off of his total last year, and he has reached the point where he is a clear leader on this club."
Leadership is a recurring theme among Bridgeland's junior class.
"All three of them have matured so much," Bridgeland said. "Every week in practice we have everyone vote on who has played the hardest, and we give the red practice jersey to the guy who has given the most effort as a symbol of the hard work it takes to have success. Our first week, David (Michaels) took the honor, and he earned it. Plus he's such a talented player. He can go inside or outside."
While the first two years in Walla Walla have been primarily successful on the floor for Shaw and Michaels, knee problems have limited Alvarez in his first two seasons. But thanks to strenuous training his bad wheel is in much better shape, and he appears ready to contribute in 2010-11.
One player who won't be able to contribute due to an injury is star sophomore guard LaQuam Thompson (5-11), who blew out his anterior cruciate ligament in the Missionaries' first practice of the year.
"Thompson is probably our player with the most ability," Bridgeland said. "When he went down, I think everyone had the thought that our season could be in trouble. But even this early in practice we have already seen that we have the guys who can step up and fill the major role we figured he would play for us."
The lone senior on the team is Justin Artis, who joined the Missionaries last year after two seasons with Olympic College.
"Justin is a sponge," Bridgeland said. "He just absorbs everything we tell him, and he supports his team no matter what. Plus, he can get really hot from the field. We call him ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Artis' because you never know when he's going to change court personalities."
The Missionary roster is also filled with underclassmen such as wing Peter Clark (soph., 6-4), who led the Northwest Conference in 3-point field goals last season.
"If he's not the best shooter in this league then I don't know who is," Bridgeland said. "I think he's really added to his mid-range game too, which will really help us open up our offense."
Sophomore forward Drew Raher (6-3) is a glue guy for this version of Whitman basketball.
"No one plays harder than Drew," Bridgeland said. "We have a lot of guys who go hard all the time, but Drew is always scrapping, and, as his shooting range has improved, I think his all-around game has improved."
Sophomore forwards Ryan Gilkey (6-9), who missed last season due to injury, and Ignas Pavilonis (6-5) round out the returners and give Whitman the size it has often lacked in past seasons.
"Losing Ryan last year hurt us because he was penciled in to be our main post presence, and we didn't really have anyone to step in," Bridgeland said. "He was our top recruit in 2009 so it's a big bonus to just be able to add him on top of our freshmen because he's so gifted. Ignas is a great character guy. With him the glass isn't half-empty of half-full. It's three-quarters full."
The incoming recruits are made up of forwards Seth Brent (6-7) and Ryan Guisness (6-6), and guards Jordan Dickson (6-1) and Josh Duckworth (6-2).
"We're very excited to have Brent here," Bridgeland said. "He's like a 6-7 guard because he can shoot it so well. Guisness has been a bit of a surprise in a good way. He's really strong and physical and clears out space."
Bridgeland also see great promise in his new additions to the Whitman backcourt.
"Dickson has range to the volleyball line," he said. "He's very book smart, and that doesn't always translate onto the court, but it does with him. And obviously, Duckworth is very smart too because he turned down Ivy League offers to come here. He's one of the best point-guard recruits we have ever had."
Overall, the depth the Missionaries now possess plays right into Bridgeland's philosophy of not having permanent starters, because the five spots at tip-off are earned during practice each week.
The Missionaries played an alumni game last Sunday, travel for an exhibition at San Jose State Saturday and open the regular season Nov. 19 against Multnomah Bible in Portland.
Whitman Men Picked Fourth in NWC preseason Poll
WALLA WALLA -The Northwest Conference's preseason men's basketball poll pegged Whitman for a fourth-place finish this winter.
Whitman, which plays an exhibition game this Saturday at NCAA Division I San Jose State, collected 42 points in the latest poll, tied with George Fox and Pacific Lutheran.
Defending champion Whitworth topped the poll with 90 points. Linfield was second with 62 points and Lewis & Clark third with 58.
Willamette (35), Puget Sound (34) and Pacific (10) fill the last three spots in the poll.
Whitman women picked third in preseason poll
WALLA WALLA - Whitman's women's baksetball team was selected third in a preseason Northwest Conference coaches poll. Whitman, which struggled through an injury-plagued season a year ago, collected 62 points.
Defending champion George Fox finished first with 81 points. Lewis & Clark was second with 71 points.
Puget Sound's 54 points and Whitworth's 44 round out the top five. Teams in the lower half are Pacific Lutheran (38), Linfield (26), Pacific (25) and Willamette (15).
Coach Michelle Ferenz, now in her 10th season at Whitman, coaxed her squad to a fifth-place finish last season despite a rash of injuries.
The Missionaries open their season Nov. 14 with an exhibition against Gonzaga in Spokane. See a season preview next week in the U-B.