WALLA WALLA - Whitman's women's basketball team looks to meld a mix of familiar faces with a stacked freshman class in the 2010-11 season on the squad's quest to make it to the NCAA Division III Tournament in March.
Three key returners figure to be the leaders on the Missionary roster: red-shirt senior guard Janele Peterson (5-feet, 7-inches), sophomore guard Kelly Peterson (5-8) and senior center Rebecca Sexton (6-3).
"Our whole team is filled with great students and people," said Whitman head coach Michelle Ferenz. "Our returning players have really embraced their leadership roles, and I think the freshmen have pushed them to strive to go to a higher level."
Jenele Peterson's return from a knee injury that cut her season short last year figures to be a big plus for a Whitman team that finished 12-13 overall.
"That was a huge loss for us last year because we really counted on Janele," Ferenz said. "She has great court vision, and she's 100 percent back. It's just a matter of getting the rust off at this point, which she'll be able to work through."
Kelly Peterson provides Whitman with another backcourt strength, and she gained valuable experience in her freshman year due to the rash of injuries the Missionaries suffered.
"Kelly really stepped in for us last year, and that will help her this year," Ferenz said. "She is a competitor. You watch her play, and it doesn't look like she's the fastest player, but then she beats everyone down the floor because she goes so hard. She just keeps getting better."
While the Missionaries have two other seniors, Sexton is the only one who hasn't red-shirted, so she is the only player officially in her final year with Whitman. She figures to be a focal point of the Missionary offense.
"Rebecca is in great shape this year, and she has such good footwork and hands," Ferenz said. "She can run the floor and has a great shooting touch. She's playing better than we've ever seen her, and her rebounding has clearly improved."
Also returning for Whitman are sophomore guard Emilie Gilbert (5-7), sophomore forward Marry Madden (5-10), sophomore guard Jazzmyne Ross (5-3), red-shirt senior guard Anna Forge (5-10) and junior guard Jennifer Keyes (5-6).
"We have a lot of depth at the guard position," Ferenz said. "Emilie is probably our most hardcore athlete because she's also on the cross country team. She'll go out and run 11 miles and then come to practice. She's a stud athlete.
"Ross is one of the many kids we have from a good program, and she makes us better every day," she said. "She isn't the biggest player, but she's an excellent on-ball defender. She's a great kid."
As for the upperclassmen in the backcourt, Ferenz also has high praise for Forge and Keyes.
"Anna got hurt last year, and when she went down she was our leading scorer and rebounder, so to lose her was a major blow," Ferenz said. "She's still on the mend, but she looks good, and her instincts are coming back. Keyes struggled with injuries too, and last season for her was kind of a lost year. She's been working to be a more complete player, and she's really pushing toward helping our team build."
The experienced Missionaries are joined by five newcomers, freshmen guards Catelyn Wbber (5-8), Tiffani Brewer (5-8) and Marah Alindogan (5-6), and forwards Meghan White (6-0) and Sarah Anderegg (6-2).
"Catelyn Webber is a very good shooter, and that's why we brought her here, but she has other tools too," Ferenz said. "With Tiffani, we get a player from Oregon City, which has one of the best basketball histories in the entire country, and Marah is also from a program that plays elite programs (Bishop Blanchet) so she has experience that will help her transition to the college level. We'll look to her to be a spark plug for us."
The two front-court newcomers will be called upon to help add depth to the Missionaries' forward position, which was an issue - in part due to injuries - last season.
"In Sarah we got a gem," Ferenz said. "She's 6-2, but she can work on the perimeter. She can go inside or out.
"Meghan is another one of our hard workers. She was born to rebound."
Collectively, the group could make up a squad that makes a push toward the NCAAs. Last year's injuries may be a blessing in disguise because the Missionary returners got extra experience covering for the walking wounded.
"We kind of have a funny split on our roster because we're working in a lot of freshmen, but there isn't a player on our team that we don't think will contribute," Ferenz said. "I'm big into having a rotation, but at this point I can't really know what the rotation will be because everyone is pushing each other. We might not even know what the rotation is until Christmas because we have so much depth."
Depth will be one of the strong points of the Whitman team during its quest to make it to March.
"We were really hurt by injuries last year," Ferenz said. "Hopefully, that evens out this year. We have a really great group. It's going to be an exciting year, and we can't wait to get after it."
The Missionaries have an exhibition contest against Gonzaga Sunday before starting the regular season on the 19th in Spokane against Northwest University.
"I love the work ethic our girls have displayed already," Ferenz said. "Every player we have is a worker. We're ready to run, and like We're going to be able to get up and down the court a lot more than last year so I've been telling the girls that going to push it. ‘It's time for the fun to start.'"