WALLA WALLA - When sophomore guard LuQuam Thompson suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of practice back in mid-October, third-year Whitman College men's basketball coach Eric Bridgeland admits that he wasn't sure which direction it would take his team.
Thompson was, after all, the Missionaries' third-leading scorer as a freshman and, more importantly, the team's best dribble-drive offensive weapon.
"He was our primary creator off the dribble," Bridgeland said. "And that is such a big part of what we do.
"When Quam tore his ACL and needed reconstructive surgery, we were all thinking, A, what happened is really bad for him; and B, what kind of adjustments are we going to have to make as a team?"
Now, nearly four months later, the Missionaries find themselves tearing their way towards the top of the Northwest Conference standings. After losing four of their first six games, including conference games at Linfield and Lewis & Clark, Whitman has won 13 of its last 15 games and is in prime position to capture one of the NWC's four postseason tickets with two weeks of regular-season play remaining.
The rush to the finish line begins tonight at 8 when the Whits entertain George Fox at Sherwood Center. Willamette follows the Bruins into town on Saturday, and national powerhouse Whitworth invades Tuesday for the Missionaries' final home game of the regular season.
Whitman then closes out conference play one week from tonight at Pacific.
With an 8-4 NWC record, Whitman finds itself tied with Lewis & Clark for second place in the standings behind undefeated Whitworth. The Pirates are 12-0 in league play, 21-0 overall and ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Division III national poll.
Whitman and L&C are one game up in the loss column on fourth-place Pacific Lutheran (8-5), and they are three games up on George Fox (5-7) with four games to play. Bridgeland and his players are keenly aware that a victory over the Bruins tonight will assure the Missionaries of no worse than a fourth-place finish and the school's first playoff appearance since 1995.
The top four teams in the NWC will then fight it out for an automatic berth in the Division III national tournament that begins in early March.
And while a strong finish could land the Whits as high as second place and give them the home-court advantage in the first round of the NWC playoffs, Bridgeland doesn't expect - or want - his players thinking along those lines.
"I really think our team, as young as they are, does really well just focusing on the next game," Bridgeland said. "We try to focus on the team in front of us, and that is what we are going to be doing with George Fox."
Justin Artis, a 6-foot guard out of Foss High School in Tacoma, is the lone senior on this year's Missionary roster. Artis averages 8 points and 1.8 assists per game.
Four juniors, five sophomores and four freshmen round out the roster. And for the first time since Bridgeland took over the program, every player on the roster is one of his recruits.
"There's no question that it makes a difference," said Bridgeland, who points out that he inherited a team in the fall of 2008 that had won just five games the previous year and finished 1-15 in the conference.
"It's just human nature," the coach continued. "All of these kids we have known for eight to 12 months before they ever reached the campus. There is a relationship that is already intact. Not only are they familiar with you, you are familiar with them.
"And the great thing is that these kids are here to play basketball and get a great education at the same time. We have a full roster of them now."
Junior Brandon Shaw, a second-team all-NWC selection as a sophomore, leads Whitman in scoring this season with a 14.7 average. He is also the team's assist leader with 3.4 per game.
Freshman Josh Duckworth, who moved into the starting lineup in place of Thompson, and sophomore Peter Clark also score in double figures for Whitman. Duckworth averages 11.5 points and 2.8 assists per game, and Clark is at 10.9 points per game.
Ryan Gilkey, a 6-9, 220-pound sophomore, leads the team with 6 rebounds per game. But it's a team effort on the backboards, with 6-7 junior David Michaels averaging 4.5 rebounds per game, followed closely by 6-3 Drew Raher (4.4), 6-5 sophomore Ignas Pavilonis (4.1) and 6-2 Shaw (4.0).
"We have a great team," Bridgeland said. "Everyone who gets on the floor brings a different strength, and we go 10-11 players deep.
"Most of all, we play hard and we trust each other. It doesn't matter who scores. It's about how we can bond together and create a great team with one goal in mind, which is to do the best we can and see if we can't get the win."
Bridgeland's first Missionary team logged a 9-16 season mark and finished 5-11 in the NWC. Last year, Whitman improved to 12-13 and 6-10.
This season, despite that early setback when Thompson was lost for the season, the coach is pleased and proud that his team has exceeded his expectations.
"I thought that when we had that third recruiting class in place next fall, that would be when we would make our big push," Bridgeland said. "I was not sure about this year.
"I have never before been part of a team that has been able to change its style of play - we are now more of a dribbling team to a passing team. We're a team where freshmen have been asked to play major roles in games, to persevere in battle and show so much character and toughness."
Bridgeland learned his way around the Northwest Conference as the head coach at the University of Puget Sound from 2001 through 2006. In his final three years at UPS, his Loggers posted a 44-4 conference record and won three consecutive championships. Each of those teams reached the NCAA Division III Sweet Sixteen.
He was twice named NWC Coach of the Year, and his .873 winning percentage (69-10) over those three seasons was the second-highest among 400-plus NCAA Division III schools.
From there, the Illinois native decided to give NCAA Division I a shot as an assistant coach under Vance Walberg at Pepperdine. And when Walberg resigned for health reasons in January of 2008, Bridgeland took over as interim head coach and led the Waves to a 5-9 record that included a victory in the first round of the West Coast Conference tournament.
But the University of Manitoba graduate said he couldn't be happier being back in the Division III mix at Whitman.
"This is without question the purest level of athletics in the country," he was quoted in a Whitman College press release. "The student in student-athlete tends to suffer at Division I and II, but that isn't the case at Division III."
And besides, he said, "I love building things."
"To take over a program like Whitman, that has not had much success in two decades, and build something worthwhile from the ground up, I'm having a blast."
Skip Molitor, Bridgeland's predecessor at Whitman, led the Missionaries into the playoffs in 1995 during his first year on the bench. That Whitman team lost in the first round and finished with a 10-18 record overall.
Molitor's only winning campaign was in 1998-99 when the Whits posted a 13-12 mark. But that squad finished 8-10 in the NWC, well out of playoff contention.
Until now, men's basketball hasn't played a meaningful role on the Whitman campus since Jim Mastin guided the Missionaries to three conference championships in a span of seven years beginning in 1981, his second year at the college. Mastin's 1985-86 team finished 21-8 and still holds the school record for the most victories in a season.
Bridgeland's Missionaries aren't likely to duplicate those 21 victories this season. But he's definitely got his team headed in the right direction.