WALLA WALLA — There may not be another David Michaels on the immediate horizon at Whitman College, but that in no way lessens the expectations of Missionary men’s head basketball coach Eric Bridgeland.
Heading into his fifth season at Whitman, it’s business as usual for the head coach. And that means there is unfinished business to attend to.
“We are coming off the best back-to-back seasons in the school’s history,” Bridgeland said. “And I know of no one in this program who is happy. Coaches, players, we all feel like we want to take that next step and win the conference.
“Second is not quite good enough any more. We feel like we can do better than that.”
In 2011, Bridgeland’s third season at the helm, the Missionaries fashioned a 20-8 record and finished second in the Northwest Conference with an 11-5 mark. That season included a memorable come-from-way-behind victory over nationally No. 1-ranked Whitworth and a first-round conference playoff victory over Lewis & Clark.
The Whits were 17-8 overall in 2012, second in the conference again at 11-5 and lost to the University of Puget Sound in the opening round of the NWC playoffs. And while last year’s achievements seem to be overshadowed by those of the previous year, Bridgeland’s not sure that is an accurate assessment.
“It’s tough to say,” Bridgeland said in trying to differentiate the two squads.
“We lost LuQuam Thompson to a season-ending knee injury on the first day of practice two years ago, and we morphed into a very versatile team that got on a roll. But last year we had a really good season where there was one team, UPS, that we just couldn’t seem to beat.
“We were picked to finish second, and we did. We felt like we could have gone farther, but both of those seasons were pretty darned good.”
Michaels, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Las Vegas who is now playing professionally in Holland, was a key asset on the 2011 team and an even bigger part of the Missionaries’ 2012 success.
As a junior, Michaels was second on the team in rebounding with 5.2 boards per game and was fifth in scoring with an 8.6 average. He was first in field goal percentage and second in blocked shots.
But those achievements pale in comparison to a 2012 campaign in which he averaged 20 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest while dishing out 40 assists, claiming 33 steals and blocking 14 shots. He was the NWC Player of the Year, was selected to the NCAA Division III all-West Region team and became the first Whitman basketball player to be named all-American.
“I don’t know if we have a David Michaels,” Bridgeland confessed when asked about this year’s roster. “But we are much more balanced, and we are very, very deep. We can go 10-12 deep and we don’t lose anything.”
Michaels was one of four Missionaries lost to graduation. Guard Brandon Shaw was a part time starter who averaged 6.4 points per game and totaled 33 assists, and guard Juan Pablo Alvarez and wing D.J. Wright were quality reserves.
“We received great leadership from Juan, and D.J was a glue guy who was also a leader,” Bridgeland said. “And the same can be said for Brandon Shaw ... another great leader.”
There are five seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and a trio of freshmen on this year’s 15-player Whitman roster. It’s a group that includes four players who started a minimum of 17 games last season and three others who saw 300-plus minutes mostly off the bench in key reserve roles.
“The best way to put it,” Bridgeland said, “is that we have a lot of guys who played a lot of minutes who are all back. We return a bunch of guys, seven or eight of them, who averaged double-digit minutes.”
The seniors are Thompson (Foss High, Tacoma, Wash.), Peter Clark (Sinagua High, Flagstaff, Ariz.), Drew Raher (St. Ignatius Prep, San Francisco), Ryan Gilkey (Woodinville, Wash.) and Ignas Pavilonis (Woodside Priory High, Portolo, Calif.).
Thompson, a 5-foot-11 guard, started 20 games and averaged 7.4 points and 2.9 rebounds as a junior. He was also credited with 29 steals and 51 assists, second most on the team.
Clark, a 6-4 wing, started 23 games and averaged 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. And Raher, a 6-3 wing, started 24 games and averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 boards.
Pavilonis, a 6-5 forward, drew just one start in the 21 games he appeared in. But he played 347 minutes overall, averaged 6.7 points per game and three rebounds.
“LuQuam was our most consistent player last year in the back court,” Bridgeland said of Thompson.
“Pavilonis and Clark are guys who can really, really shoot, but they also have developed the ability to put the ball on the ground.
“And Drew Raher is one of our internal leaders. He shot over 50 percent from 3-point distance last year and is looking great. He’s a lot more mobile. And when you are talking skills, he wins and that is his skill.”
Gilkey, the fifth senior, is a 6-9 power forward who didn’t start a single game last year but still managed to average 3.6 points and 2.8 rebounds off the bench.
“He’s a junior athletically but will graduate this coming spring, so this is his last year,” Bridgeland said of Gilkey. “He’s now 245 pounds (220 as a junior) and has done some great work in the weight room. He’s really good on the interior, a great rebounder.”
Gilkey will often play alongside Ben Eisenhardt (Bainbridge Island, Wash.), a 6-foot-10 junior who also played almost exclusively off the bench last season. Eisenhardt averaged 8.4 points and 3.5 rebounds, and he also chipped in with 25 assists.
“He’s also very, very versatile,” Bridgeland said of Eisenhardt. “He’s a 6-10 forward who can shoot it and find people. He’s very gifted and plays incredibly hard. When you find a 6-10 player who plays as hard as he does, it’s very admirable.”
The only other junior on the roster is 6-2 guard Josh Duckworth (Brentwood School, Los Angeles), who started 17 games as a sophomore, scored eight points per game, averaged 3.8 rebounds and dished out a team-high 56 assists.
“He hit a lot of big shots for us,” Bridgeland said of Duckworth, noting that he was the NWC Rookie of the Year as a freshman and was the West Region Freshman of the Year. “You get great leadership from Josh. He’s a high-level defender, he’s versatile and he can shoot.”
Among the sophomores, 6-3 forward Matt Mounier (Crepsi Carmelite High, Encino, Calif.) was the most productive as a freshman. Mounier started just once, but he saw a total of 323 minutes, averaged 4.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and contributed 17 assists.
The other sophs are 5-10 guard Clay Callahan (Corvallis, Ore.), 6-3 guard Brandon Gagliardi (Gig Harbor, Wash.), 6-3 forward Keenan Dunham (O’Dea High, Seattle) and 6-0 guard Dominic Lippi (St. Joseph Notre Dame High, Alameda, Calif.). Lippi is a transfer from the University of California at Davis.
Three freshmen — 6-3 guard Jackson Clough (Seattle Preparatory School, Seattle), 6-0 guard Tochi Oti (Loyola High, Los Angeles) and 6-6 forward Evan Martin (Centennial High, Las Vegas) — round out the roster.
“I just love our freshmen,” Bridgeland said, including Lippi in his assessment of the team’s first-year players. “We needed ball handling bad, and we got it in our three new guards.
“Clough and Oti are both very special. They have had great preseasons so far and they can both shoot it and put it on the ground. Lippi is just getting over a broken hand, but he is a warrior and a leader, is very good and will see some time
“And Evan Martin is kind of in the David Michaels mode. He can post up, can shoot and is very versatile. We’re very excited about him.”
The Missionaries open the season at home Nov. 15 when the University of St. Thomas, Minn., invades Sherwood Center. The Tommies were 22-7 last season and are ranked No. 11 in the NCAA Division III preseason men’s basketball poll.
Then it’s off to California for three more non-league games at NCAA Division I UC-Riverside, Pacific University in Moreno Valley and Bathesda University in Anaheim.
The Whits play three more home games, including a Dec. 1 contest against a Whitman alumni team on Dec. 1, before launching Northwest Conference play the following weekend against University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University. Those games will also be played on the Whitman campus.
Whitworth University, which is No. 14 in the preseason rankings, looms as this year’s conference favorite. The Pirates host Whitman Jan. 8 and come to Walla Walla on Feb. 5.
Whitman also received votes in the first Division III poll, the only other NWC school to do so.
“We feel as a coaching staff that we are incredibly balanced and deep at every position,” Bridgeland said. “We just need to be more consistent, keep it simple and let the players do what they do. That is the approach we are taking.
“Our destination is to win the conference and get into the NCAAs and see how far we can go. Getting better daily and closer daily is all we are focusing on.”