WALLA WALLA - If a preseason poll of coaches is any indication, Whitman College is one of four teams with the inside track on this fall's Northwest Conference men's soccer championship.
Whitman, which was second in the conference race last fall for the second time in three seasons, attracted one first-place vote in the latest poll while collecting 39 total points, good enough for third place.
Pacific Lutheran, coming off a third-place finish last season, tops the 2011 preseason poll with 43 points (two first-place votes). The Lutes return two All-NWC First-Team players, including Offensive Player of the Year Chad Kearns.
Defending champion Pacific attracted three first-place votes in the poll, securing the second spot with 40 points. The Boxers lost three first-team players to graduation, one of them goalkeeper and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Andrew Stevermer.
Whitworth, a sixth-place team last season, attracted two first-place votes in the poll and finished a strong fourth with 36 points. The Pirates return three first-team players from a year ago.
The poll pegs Puget Sound, which was fifth in the NWC standings last fall, for a sixth-place showing in 2011. The Loggers attracted 33 points, which left them just 10 points back of poll-leading Pacific Lutheran.
This is the first an NWC preseason poll in any sport has had five teams within 10 points of each other at the top of the list.
Rounding out the latest poll are Linfield with 21 points followed by Willamette (13) and George Fox (10).
Mike Washington, now in his 14th season at Whitman's coaching helm, lost All-NWC first-teamers Cooper Crosby and Conner Bottomly to graduation last spring, but he returns a deep roster of nearly 20 returning veterans and almost as many players in a strong first-year class.
Speedy senior Sam Freedman, who made the All-NWC Second Team last fall, leads the contingent of returnees. He was Whitman's second-leading scorer last season with eight goals and two assists.
Freedman also flashed a flair of the dramatic last fall, booting game-winning goals against both Pacific Lutheran and Whitworth (twice).
Other key players back for Whitman are junior Leland Matthaeus (5 goals, 5 assists), junior Jed Jacobson (3 three goals, four assists), sophomore Michael Axelson (4 goals, one assist), sophomore Junpei Tsuji (1 goal, 2 assists) and senior Brian Percival (4 assists).
Both Matthaeus and Percival earned all All-NWC Honorable Mention last season.
Also back for the Missionaries is 6-foot-4 junior goalkeeper Michael Bathurst, who started 10 games (three shutouts) last fall in his first season at Whitman. Two of his shutouts came against Whitworth and Pacific Lutheran.
Whitman kicks off its 2011 season with an alumni game on Saturday, Aug. 27, and then hosts College of Idaho for a scrimmage on Aug. 29.
The Missionaries play their first official game on Sept. 1 against Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash. Their first home game is Monday, Sept. 5, against Warner Pacific.
Whitman starts its NWC season on the road with games Sept. 17-18 at George Fox and Pacific.