WALLA WALLA - The Whitman College men's tennis team gets an early jump later this week on pursuit of its fifth straight conference championship.
While the rest of the Northwest continues its shiver through the dead of winter, coach Jeff Northam and 11 of his players are ticketed for a week of training and matches in Hawaii.
"The NCAA exemption allows us to take a trip before the next semester starts, and we're taking advantage of that," Northam said.
"This will be the earliest we've started our spring season in my time at Whitman," he adds. "It's a great opportunity for a good week of training before classes get started again."
Matches slated thus far for next week pit Whitman against two NCAA Division II teams, Hawaii-Pacific and BYU-Hawaii. Northam also hopes to schedule at least one more match.
"This trip is a testament to the great alumni support our program receives," Northam said. "That support makes a huge difference in keeping these trips affordable and providing a great experience for our student athletes.
"One of our freshmen (James Rivers) is from Hawaii, and his family is also giving us a place to stay for the week."
Sam Sadeghi, a junior, is the only player unable to make the trip. He plans to spend the week studying for his Medical School Admission Test (MCAT).
Whitman, which has won 78 consecutive NWC regular season matches dating back to April of 2006, opens the 2012 conference season when George Fox comes to Walla Walla for the five-team Whitman Shootout Feb. 10-12.
Before playing George Fox in the weekend finale at 2 p.m. that Sunday, Whitman faces Lewis-Clark State, UC-Santa Cruz and the University of Montana in a string of tough non-conference matches.
Both Lewis-Clark State (NAIA) and UC-Santa Cruz (NCAA DIII) are perennial national powers, Northam notes, and NCAA DI Montana will probably be the "best team on the courts that weekend."
Whitman resumes NWC action Feb. 24-25 when it hosts Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound. The remainder of 12 conference dates are sprinkled throughout March and April.
The team sitting atop the NWC standings in mid-April wins the conference title, but the league's automatic berth to the NCAA DIII national championship tournament will be decided April 21-22 in a four-team postseason tournament. Whitman has made five straight appearances in the national championship field.
This spring's NWC regular-season champ hosts the conference playoffs and is matched against the No. 4 seed in a Saturday semifinal. The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds play the other semifinal. Winners of the two matches play that Sunday for a ticket to nationals.
Willamette, which lost to Whitman in the NWC finals the past two years, is one of the teams Northam says are the most likely to challenge his team's recent reign of supremacy.
As a whole, however, the talent level in the conference continues to broaden and deepen, Northam said. "Last year it was really nip and tuck down the stretch to see which programs were going to make the conference tournament.
"We've had a great run, and I think we have enough returning talent to be seen as the favorite, he adds. "But we try hard not to look past any of the teams we're going to be playing."
After starting its season in Hawaii, Whitman will juggle its pursuit of a fifth straight NWC title with more travel and additional chances to battle other national-caliber NCAA DIII programs.
Whitman, ranked No. 29 nationally and No. 7 in the West Region, gets its first crack at one of the top DIII programs when UC-Santa Cruz takes part in the Whitman Shootout in early February. The Banana Slugs begin the season No. 2 in the West Region and No. 6 at the national level.
Whitman heads east to Fredericksburg, Va., on Feb. 18-19 to play three top programs, including No. 22 Mary Washington and No. 23 Rhodes. The third opponent that weekend is Kalamazoo, which has also had a great deal of national success in recent decades.
In March, a Spring Break trip to California will include a neutral-court match against No. 19 Trinity (Connecticut).
"Counting the NAIA and NCAA Division I and II teams we're playing, this is without a doubt the toughest schedule we've ever played," Northam says. "The only way to get better is to have the stress of having to play at a high level."
"The amount of traveling we're going to do this spring is also fairly unique," he notes. "With last fall's trip to the national tournament in Alabama, and our trips to Hawaii and Virginia, we're going to hit almost every time zone in the nation.
"I can think of no other NCAA Division III team in the country that will be traveling as much as we will. It's going to be a great spring season for Whitman."