WALLA WALLA — If Whitman College can keep its head above water until January, women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz believes her Missionaries can once again contend for a postseason playoff berth and a so-far elusive ticket to the NCAA Division III national tournament.
“It won’t be easy, but finishing in the top four in our conference and going back to the playoffs is a very realistic goal,” said Ferenz, who is beginning her 12th season at the Missionary helm. “I would be disappointed if we didn’t get into the top four, but we have a lot of work to do. The talent is there, but we can’t rely on what we were last year.”
The Missionaries logged a 16-10 record a year ago. They tied for third place in the Northwest Conference at 12-4 and lost to Lewis & Clark 69-64 in the first round of the league playoffs.
It was Whitman’s fourth appearance in the playoffs in the last seven years. But on each occasion the Missionaries were knocked out in the first round.
Whitman’s best opportunity to qualify for nationals came in 2004 when the Whits tied University of Puget Sound for the conference crown as each team finished with 13-3 records. There were no playoffs that year, and UPS was awarded the national tournament berth based on a coin flip.
“We tied for the league championship, and we were tied in every single tie-breaker,” Ferenz recalled. “So they flipped a coin and UPS won the toss. That was the impetus to bring back the conference playoffs a couple of years later.”
Last year’s team was led by Jenele Peterson, a 5-foot-7 senior guard, who led Whitman in scoring (14.6 points per game), assists (4.5) and steals (1.5). She finished her career No. 4 on Whitman’s all-time scoring chart, earned all-Northwest Conference first-team honors for a second straight year and is now playing professionally in Gottingen, Germany.
“She is one of the best players in the history of our program,” Ferenz said of Peterson.
Two other key seniors — former Wa-Hi Blue Devils Anna Forge and Jennifer Keyes — also graduated last spring. But it is the loss of another Peterson that is causing Ferenz the most angst as she reshapes her team.
Forge, a 5-10 guard, and Keyes, a 5-6 guard, were two of the team’s key reserves. Forge led the team in blocked shots with 26, ranked third in steals, fourth in assists and was a strong defensive rebounder. Keyes led the Whits with 37 3-point baskets and averaged six points per game off the bench.
Ferenz had the entire recruiting season to replenish her graduated seniors. But when Kelly Peterson, a 5-8 guard, was forced to forgo her senior season for academic reasons, it caught the coach off guard.
“We found out over the summer that Kelly wouldn’t be with us, and by then, to be honest, we were done recruiting,” Ferenz said. “There’s only so much you can do.
“Kelly is in school,” Ferenz explained. “But she’s taking an academic overload because she is trying to get into med school. She just couldn’t squeeze in the time to play basketball, too.”
Kelly Peterson started in the Whitman backcourt alongside Janele Peterson. She was the team’s second-leading scorer with an 8.4 average, ranked second in 3-point baskets, third in assists and fourth in steals.
“What it does,” Ferenz said, “is it makes us very young again. With just two seniors, the bulk of our roster is sophomores and juniors. And we are especially inexperienced at the guard spots.”
And what worries Ferenz the most is that her team plays two important NWC games before the season is a month old, and that may not be enough time to get her inexperienced group up to speed. Whitman entertains Pacific Lutheran University of Nov. 30 and hosts University of Puget Sound Dec. 7.
“They are both home games, and you’ve just got to win at home to compete in the conference,” Ferenz said. “Those games are so important, and we need to be ready for them.
“We have a nice core group back. They understand and are working hard, but it’s a matter of how quickly we can come together. I think we have a chance to be pretty good, but our best basketball may still be a long ways ahead of us.”
The two seniors on the squad are Mary Madden, a 5-11 forward, and Emilie Gilbert, a 5-7 guard, who won’t join the team until after her cross country season is complete. Gilbert is entered in the Nov. 10 NCAA Division III West Regional meet in Independence, Ore., and she’s likely to qualify once again for the National Championships Nov. 17 in Terre Haute, Ind.
Four juniors, five sophomores and a pair of freshmen round out Ferenz’ 13-player roster. Of that group, juniors Tiffani Traver and Meghan White are considered returning starters and junior Sarah Anderegg saw extensive minutes in a reserve role last season.
The fourth junior is Marah Alindogan, a 5-6 guard. As a sophomore she saw 57 minutes of action in 14 games off the bench.
Two of the five sophomores — Heather Lovelace and Hallie Buse — saw substantial playing time last year. A third, Katie Gray, played minimally.
The final two sophomores are 5-10 forward Hailey Ann Maeda and 5-7 guard Heather Johns out of Southridge High in West Richland. The only true freshmen on the roster are guards Hailey McDonald and Alyssa Maine.
The Missionaries open their season with three consecutive games on the road leading up to the worrisome home opener against PLU. Whitman tips off the season at the University of La Verne in La Verne, Calif., Friday, and the following night the Whits play at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, Calif.
Whitman then travels to Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash., for a Nov. 24 game before hosting the Lutes on the final night in November.
“It’s a goofy schedule, not one of my favorites,” Ferenz said, noting that Whitman plays two more non-league games before the UPS clash and two more non-leaguers after the Loggers before settling into the NWC schedule. “It’s the product of having to move some games around at the last minute.”