WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla Community College's women's basketball team fell against Yakima Valley in last season's NWAACC championship game, 53-40, but finished 2010-11 tied for second at 10-4 in the NWAACC East Region and 22-7 overall.
This season, the Warriors return several starters from last season's squad, but injuries in last year's championship tournament and the offseason have left WWCC missing several likely starters.
Sophomore combo guard/forward Caitlin Duncan (5-foot-10) will redshirt the 2011-12 season after blowing out her knee in the YMCA Peach Basket Classic in August. Duncan is a Walla Walla native who graduated from DeSales.
"She was one of our starters and our leading scorers," WWCC coach Bobbi Hazeltine said, "so that's a big blow right away. That's tough, and we'll have to redshirt her."
Another starter who will likely be hampered by injury is Alex Pfefferle. Pfefferle, a 5-9 guard out of Twin Falls, Idaho, averaged 11.5 points per game as a freshman. She injured her knee against Highline in the quarterfinals of last season's NWAACC Tournament.
"She (Pfefferle) has been rehabbing all spring, summer and fall, so we hope to have her back (in time for the first tournament of the season)," Hazeltine said. "She's been practicing, but not at full strength.
"Our goal is for her to play that tournament (the Yakima Invitational)," Hazeltine said. "She's been making great progress at practice so we hope she is ready to go, but it's hard to determine."
Speaking of tournaments, the Warriors open the season tonight at the Yakima Invitational. The opening round should be a fairly easy starter - WWCC faces a Yakima Valley Alumni squad at 6 p.m. tonight - but the competition ramps up rapidly from there.
Should WWCC take care of business against the alums, the winner of Blue Mountain vs. Lower Columbia awaits.
Blue Mountain missed last year's postseason after posting a 14-12 record (6-8 in the East), but Lower Columbia was a perfect 16-0 in West Region play and 22-6 overall, good for first in the West.
Should WWCC advance to the championship, there is a good possibility the Warriors will face Yakima Valley in a rematch of last year's championship bout, but playing the Yaks (10-4, 23-7 overall) in November is far different from playing them in the spring, Hazeltine said.
"They've never been full strength (early in the season), so you can never tell who is who," Hazeltine said. "They return almost their entire roster, but if we do well against them in November, it doesn't matter at all. What really matters is how we do in January, February and March."
Following the Yakima Valley Invitational, the Warriors have just short of two weeks before they host the Warrior Classic on Dec. 2-3. The break followed by a home tournament should allows WWCC to prepare for what will likely be their biggest - if ultimately inconsequential in terms of NWAACC standings - challenge in North Idaho college on Dec. 9.
Last year, the Cardinals routed WWCC 98-51 in Couer d'Alene.
"That's (playing NIC) exciting because it's a measuring stick for us," Hazeltine said. "It's good to play teams like that to see where you are and where you aren't... Last year on Christmas Eve they just hammered us."
North Idaho went on to win the 2011 NJCAA Division I National Championship and is currently receiving votes in the NJCAA poll, but not ranked thanks to a loss to Mesa on Nov. 11.
Despite losing Duncan to injury and having Pfefferle hampered, WWCC still features some returning talent from last year's tourney run. Janae Klarich, a 5-5 guard from Granger, Wash., returns at point guard.
"She's (Klarich) not going to have big stats, but she's one of the most important kids we have because she runs everything," Hazeltine said. "She's a good leader."
Sienna Edmundson (5-9) backed up Klarich at point last year, but will likely see time on the court side by side with Klarich.
"She (Edmundson) might not have huge stats, but she's probably the best defender we have," Hazeltine said. "She's quick going to the hole and she's really athletic."
Leslie Stillar (5-6) will also see time in the backcourt after leading the Warriors in 3-point shooting and averaging 10 points per game in 2010-11.
"Leslie made a couple big shots to win games last year," Hazeltine said. "She's pretty much our best shooter.
"Alex (Pfefferle), Sienna (Edmundson) and Leslie (Stillar) were all really big coming off the bench for us last year, so they'll be fighting for starting spots," Hazeltine said.
Down low the Warriors have a pair of 6-footers returning in Stevie Humphries and Tai Jensen.
"She (Jensen) was starting at the end of the season," Hazeltine said. "She'll fight to start at the post. She's just one of those kids that just battles. She's fundamentally sound and she does a lot of things really well.
"She's (Humphries) our most athletic post," Hazeltine said. "We'll have a pretty good rotation with her and Tai."
The Warriors also welcome 6-2 freshman forward Gabby Anderson, a Wa-Hi grad, to the backcourt.
"She had a pretty good career for Wa-Hi and it's pretty much a no-brainer to get her here," Hazeltine said.
Walla Walla did lose its leading scorer, although she didn't go far. Shiann Dreadfulwater transferred to Whitman College.
"She's a big loss, and Whitman is getting a good ballplayer," Hazeltine said.