WALLA WALLA — Whitman College’s women’s basketball team suffered a number of close losses last season.
The Missionaries (9-7 in the Northwest Conference, 15-11 overall) finished fourth in the league and then lost 60-51 to second-place Lewis & Clark (Portland) in the first round of NWC playoffs.
This year the Missionaries, led by redshirt senior Janele Peterson, look to turn some of those Ls into Ws.
Whitman returns four-of-five leading scorers from last season’s campaign but faces a stiff test to start the season.
The Missionaries host NAIA No. 5-ranked Lewis-Clark State College (Lewiston, Idaho) Tuesday in the team’s season opener.
The Missionaries have never beaten the Warriors, Whitman coach Michelle Ferenz said.
"That’s (LCSC) a tough challenge for our kids," Ferenz said. "It’s not going to do us any good to go play someone we are going to kill. They’re a huge challenge. We’ve never beaten them — we probably shouldn’t beat them."
As a member of the National Association of Interscholastic Athletics Division I, LCSC can offer its players scholarships, a significant advantage over NCAA Division III Whitman, which can’t.
In four of the last five seasons, LCSC has won at least 29 games. The team also has reached the Sweet 16 round at NAIA nationals in five of the past six seasons.
LCSC returns three four-year starters, including the Frontier Conference’s co-Player of the Year last year in Jasmine Stohr, along with senior posts Kirsi Voshell (6-3) and Alyssa Fierro (6-2).
The Warriors beat Whitman 84-61 Dec. 18 of last year in Lewiston in the last meeting between the two schools.
Whitman then travels to Massachusetts to take on two New England Small College Athletic Conference powers in Williams College and Tufts University at the Williams Tip-Off Tournament. Williams College was 21-6 a year ago and Tufts posted an 18-6 record.
Williams is hosting the event and was 12-1 at home in 2010-11.
"We really wanted to go back East," Ferenz said. "There’s kind of a bias that back East is better."
Ferenz said that because there are not as many small colleges in the Northwest, they rarely are able to schedule games against similar competition.
"They (Williams) return a nice group of kids," Ferenz said. "They’re well coached, they’re going to be a challenge.
"The NESCAC is one of the better conferences in the country," she said. "Most of our returners grasp the importance of going back East because it will help our reputation and our conference’s reputation."
The challenging non-conference schedule will only add to an already challenging conference slate for Whitman.
"We’ve built a program that’s been right in the middle of the NWC," Ferenz said. "It’s always been a good conference, now its a really great conference. George Fox could be No. 1 in the nation by the time we play them. And they don’t run away in our conference — they don’t kill our conference.
"We’re just really trying to take the approach against these tough teams so that when George Fox comes to town we know we can play with them," she said.
The Missionaries will be led by Peterson, a point guard out of Redondo Beach, Calif. Peterson averaged a team-high 13.6 points per game and distributed three assists per game, also a team high. Peterson was selected to the all-NWC first team.
Peterson tore her ACL three games into her junior season and was granted a medical hardship waiver for an extra year of eligibility.
Joining Peterson in the back court is senior guard Jennifer Keyes of Walla Walla. Keyes, the Missionaries’ resident sharp shooter, averaged 41.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc last season.
Shiann Dreadfulwater, a 5-8 junior, transferred from Walla Walla Community College and will be starting her first year as a Missionary.
"We watched her play at WWCC and we are really lucky to get her," Ferenz said. "She is still learning our system and what we want to do, but she’s learning really quickly.
"She’s a good defender but she can also shoot," Ferenz added. "Because of her versatility it’s going to make it really hard to keep her off the floor."
Another Wa-Hi graduate, redshirt-senior guard Anna Forge (5-10) should provide more depth in the back court for the Missionaries.
"She (Forge) struggled at times last season but this season looks better, stronger and more confident," Ferenz said in an e-mail. "Anna is a very good athlete and brings a lot of great energy to the team. She has the ability to really make things happen."
Forge injured her ACL as a junior in a 56-52 victory over Eastern Oregon in 2009.
The Missionaries’ lone loss to graduation last year was Rebecca Sexton. The 6-foot-3 forward was a dominating presence in the post, tallying 32 blocks in 2010-11 and averaging 8.6 points per game.
With Sexton gone, the Missionaries will join the youth movement, as three-of-six forwards listed on the roster are freshmen and the only upperclassman is junior Mary Madden.
Ferenz said Whitman would move to a more up-tempo offense, instead of the half-court offense used with Sexton in mind.
Sophomore Sarah Anderegg will be stepping into the post position. Anderegg (6-2) averaged 8.7 points per game as a freshman but was more of a forward than a post.
"We’re probably going to use Sarah (Anderegg) a little more around the hoop this year," Ferenz said. "Last year she played more face-up (to the net), but she can do both. She’s got three more years, and she is still developing."
Ferenz said sophomore Megan White and freshman Heather Lovelace will also see significant time under the net.
"(Lovelace) is definitely going to play," Ferenz said of the 6-foot freshman. "She’s big and athletic and she just needs to learn how to play at this level."