WALLA WALLA - After falling one victory short of a Northwest Conference title in two of the last three years, the Whitman College men's soccer team is poised for another run at the top spot this fall.
Whitman finished last season with a flurry, winning a school-record six straight games while outscoring the opposition by a combined 15-5.
The Missionaries, 7-0-1 in their last eight games of the 2010 season, finished second in the final NWC standings, missing the proverbial brass ring by a single victory.
Mike Washington, now in his 14th season at the Whitman controls, is cautiously optimistic about his team's chances for another stellar season.
"We have some good players returning in our junior and senior classes, and our depth of talent is better than it's ever been, but we're still a young team in many respects," Washington said. "This is still a team that needs to find a consistent rhythm."
With any luck, Whitman will find that rhythm earlier rather than later.
"We'd definitely like to get off to a quicker start," Washington said.
"We can't wait until we're four or five games into the conference season before we get going. Rather than play catch-up, we want to start the season on a strong note and make everyone else chase us."
From all indications, however, the 2011 title chase could be a dogfight right from the get-go.
In a recent preseason coaches poll, Whitman collected 39 points for a projected third-place finish, behind Pacific Lutheran and Pacific.
To compete for a crown this fall, Whitman must replace graduated seniors Cooper Crosby, a four-year defensive star, and midfielder Connor Bottomly, who led the Missionaries in scoring a year ago. Both players earned NWC First-Team honors.
Defender John Fleming, midfielder Beau Morton and goalkeeper Tim Shu are three more key losses to graduation.
On the positive side, Whitman returns four of its top six scorers from last fall and a raft of players who were full- or part-time starters.
The defense looks promising despite the departure of Crosby and Fleming in the middle and one of last year's keepers in Shu, said Washington.
Michael Bathurst, a 6-foot-4 junior captain, started in net 10 times last fall and "looks better than ever. Michael played a lot toward the end of last season when we were going so well," Washington said.
"We're in good hands with Michael, but we also have two freshmen, Stuart Ellsworth (Bellevue, Wash.) and Niko Contos (Boise, Idaho), who are more than ample back-ups. We're in better shape overall at keeper than we were the past few years."
Along the defensive back line, a trio of sophomores - Jack Morgan, Cooper Schumacher and Satchel Grant - are in line to fill holes in the middle.
Senior captain Brian Percival, a two-year starter, and sophomore Riley Hernandez are key returnees at the outside back positions.
Sophomore Reid Shaw, senior Nathan Ord and junior Dhavan Vengadasalam are pushing for playing time in the outside defending slots.
Senior Sam Freedman, juniors Jed Jacobson and Andrew Clark, third-year sophomore Leland Matthaeus and sophomore Junpei Tsuji give the Missionaries a solid core in the midfield.
Sophomore Jesse Mirman and senior Jordan Thomas are candidates to replace Morton as holding midfielders.
Chris Perkins, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, gives Whitman good size and quickness at forward.
Bill Landefeld, a freshman from Kennewick, also shows promise at forward.
Other returning players are sophomore midfielders Michael Axelson, Danny Smith and Forrest Epstein.
More than a dozen newcomers have pushed the roster ranks well past the 30 mark. At least a handful of those fresh faces could have an immediate impact, Washington said.
Jose Beleche and Sean Williams, two Walla Walla products, are in the midfield mix along with first-year sophomores Lucas Ramadan (Kentfield, Calif.) and Alex Baker (Eugene).
Other freshmen battling for time in the midfield are Joe Virden (Richland), Logan Grime (Batesburg, S.C.), Tim Reed (Pasadena, Calif.) Riley Paul (Juneau) and Clint Vorauer (Bellevue, Wash.).
"We have options all over the midfield," Washington said. "That also gives us a chance to play different formations."
Rounding out the freshman class are Daniel Varns (Bloomington, Ind.) and Mats Sanyer (Salt Lake City), looking for playing time on the defensive side of the ball.
"We've got a few weeks of preseason games to sort things out and get ready for conference," Washington said.
Whitman hosted a non-counting scrimmage against College of Idaho on Monday before traveling to Kirkland, Wash., on Thursday for a season-opening battle with Northwest University.
The Missionaries return home for a 7 p.m. battle Monday with Warner Pacific.
After a quick trip back east to play Augsburg College and Bethel University Sept. 8 and 10, Whitman kicks off its NWC slate Sept. 17-18 at George Fox and Pacific universities.