WALLA WALLA — When fully one third of your 15-player roster watches practices from the sidelines icing injured knees, that’s problematic.
When those healthy enough to practice are being asked to come up with 53 points and 22 rebounds per game that were lost to graduation, that’s problematic, too.
Fortunately, Walla Walla Community College women’s basketball coach Bobbi Hazeltine is a problem solver. And her first exam comes this weekend when Hazeltine leads the Warriors into the season-opening Yakima Invitational.
Walla Walla opens the tournament at 2 p.m. Friday against Centralia, and Hazeltine admits that she’s not quite sure what to expect.
“We lost some big impact players,” Hazeltine said. “Four NWAACC all-stars, two all-conference players, five who are now playing at four-year schools. They were just really talented kids.
“More importantly,” she added, “they are really good people. And I am missing them a lot right now.”
Leslie Stillar, one of four graduated starters from last year’s 23-7 team that placed third in the NWAACC Championships, is now playing at Central Washington University. Stillar led the Warriors in scoring with a 13.3 average in Eastern Division games and set a school record with 72 3-point baskets.
Three other starters from a year ago — center Tai Jensen, forward Sienna Edmunson and point guard Janae Klarich — are also playing at four-year schools, as is Michelle Pfefferle, the first player off the Warriors bench a year ago.
Jensen, who led WWCC in rebounding last season, attends Metropolitan State in Denver. Klarich plays for Concordia University in Portland, Edmunson is at College of Idaho in Caldwell, and Pfefferle plays for Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
“Five girls playing four-year ball, that’s pretty good,” Hazeltine said.
The sixth sophomore from a year ago, backup center Stevie Humphries, attends Montana Western but is no longer playing basketball.
As for the rash of knee injuries, Hazeltine has gotten used to them during her 13 seasons in charge of the WWCC women’s program. In addition to the five players who are now sidelined, no fewer than six of the remaining 10 are playing on reconstructed knees.
“Everybody has these, it’s not just us,” Hazeltine said of the knee injury epidemic. “I’m not whining at all, it’s just part of the game. Everyone in our league has gone through this, so we just try and move on.”
The Warriors’ lone returning starter from a year ago, 5-foot-11 small forward Hailey Felgenhauer, is one of the six players with a knee issue in her past. She averaged 8.5 points last year and was the team’s second-leading rebounder as a redshirt freshman after sitting out the 2010-11 season after blowing out her knee.
Felgenhauer will have to play a key role for the Warriors this season, Hazeltine said, along with 5-10 sophomore Caitlin Duncan, a Walla Walla native and DeSales High grad who started for the Warriors two years ago but missed all of last season after injuring her knee the previous summer.
Playing a full year in a starting role puts Felgenhauer and Duncan well ahead of everyone else in terms of experience, Hazeltine said.
“Oh, yeah, you can tell,” the coach said. “They are just so far ahead of everybody else fundamentally, and they understand everything. Experience in this program is huge because we run a lot of stuff.
“Coming out of high school to here, I don’t think most high schools run more than one or two offenses. We run seven offenses with multiple, multiple set plays. The freshman really struggle with that and adapting to our fundamental style.”
Michelle Seitz, a 5-6 sophomore shooting guard, would seem to have a leg up on the first-year players. She averaged 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in a reserve role a year ago.
“She got the most minutes off the bench of any of our returning players,” Hazeltine said of Seitz. “I think you are going to see that she is one of the best guards in the league this year. She’s very athletic, she can shoot it and she’s a true gym rat.
“But she played behind Leslie Stillar last year and didn’t get a lot of minutes. She’s a good basketball player who happened to play the wrong position last year.”
Brooke Hawkins, a 5-7 point guard, is another sophomore who spent most of last season on the bench.
“She played behind Janae (Klarich) and Sienna (Edmunson), who were both point guards even though we had them both of the floor most of the time,” Hazeltine said. “But Brooke is a good little left-handed point guard who will start for us this year and does some good things.
“She’s a good passer who understands the game. Hopefully we can get a little more offense out of her.”
Another sophomore who showed promise late last season is Gabby Anderson, a 6-2 post out of Wa-Hi.
“She’s by far our tallest player, but she’s not a thick, physical post like Tai (Jensen) was last year,” Hazeltine said of Anderson. “She’s slim, and she depends more on her height.
“But she runs the floor well and shoots pretty decent from the outside. She hardly played last season, but she came off the bench in our third-place game at the tournament and had a great game. She deserves to play and hopefully she will make a difference.”
Two other sophomore reserves from a year ago, Tiffany McDonald and Michelle Tynan, chose not to return.
One sophomore transfer and four true freshmen will round out Hazeltine’s roster for this weekend, and perhaps for some time to come.
The transfer is Allie Kelsey, a 5-7 guard out of Twin Falls, Idaho, who played at Big Bend last year and won an eligibility appeal that allows her to play for the Warriors immediately. And she should provide immediate help.
“She has that one year of experience under her belt, regardless of where she played,” Hazeltine said. “And that’s pretty important at the junior college level.
“She understands the game, is really competitive and a decent shooter and passer. And the biggest thing, she’s healthy, and I think she will start for us.”
One of the reasons Kelsey chose to transfer to WWCC was the arrival of good friend and former teammate Josie Jordan on the Warriors’ campus. Jordan, a 5-8 guard out of Twin Falls, chose Walla Walla in part because her older brother, Jared Jordan, played baseball for the Warriors.
“Jared had a great career here, the family knew about us and wanted Josie here. So Jared coming here was a big bonus for us.
“Josie is a shooter,” Hazeltine said. “Right now she is playing behind Michelle Seitz, kind of the same boat Michelle was in last year. Josie will get some playing time, but with Michelle, Allie (Brooks) and Caitlin (Duncan) at the three guard positions, that is our strength right now.”
The other three first-year players are Amy DeLong, a 5-10 forward from Vale, Ore.; MeShel Rad, a 5-10 forward out of Prairie High in Cottonwood, Idaho; and Saige Stefanski, a 5-10 post from Palmer, Alaska.
“We knew about Amy because Brooke Hawkins is also from Vale,” Hazeltine said. “She was Oregon’s Class 3A state player of the year and she is going to be decent for us. She will get experience this year and down the road will be pretty good for us.”
Rad was Idaho’s Class 1A player of the year, Hazeltine said, and she could give the Warriors a needed boost in a very important area.
“Her school won the state championship, and she averaged 20 rebounds a game in the tournament,” Hazeltine said of Rad. “She’s a great rebounder and that is why I went after her. She’ll be playing behind Hailey (Felgenhauer) and Gabby (Anderson), but she is an inside kid who is really athletic and has a nose for the ball.”
Hazeltine scoured Alaska in search of a couple of six-footers who got away. Instead, Stefanski discovered Walla Walla.
“She contacted us while doing a tour of community colleges,” Hazeltine said. “She liked it here, and we like her.
“She’s a true post, but she’s not very tall. She’s strong and physical, though, another one of those small post players we have who is fighting for playing time.”
Hazeltine said she doesn’t recall ever having a smaller team. But some of her best interior players — Nancy Johnson from two years ago, for example, and Shannon Talbott years earlier — were in that 5-10 range.
“A lot of it has to do with jumping ability and work ethic,” she said. “Nancy and Shannon worked really hard. They were athletic.”
The five knees that are currently sidelined belong to Rachel Wolfe (5-5 guard, Boise, Idaho), Nadine Giardina (5-5 guard, Hansen, Idaho), Jessica Siler (5-10 forward, Umatilla, Ore.), Launia Davis (5-4 guard, Meridian, Idaho) and Monique Smiley (6-0 post, St. Helen’s Ore.).
The decision has already been made to redshirt Smiley and groom her for next year, Hazeltine said. Davis, the team’s backup point guard, injured her knee last week and an MRI will determine if she can play this season or also be redshirted.
Hazeltine expects Wolfe and Giardina to work themselves back at some point this season. And she can only hope Siler will do the same.
“Jessica is one of our top recruits,” Hazeltine said of Siler. “We went after her pretty hard, and we got her. She is one of our most athletic kids and a good basketball player.”
Siler injured her knee in practice and had it scoped last week. She’s on crutches, but Hazeltine is hopeful she will be back on the floor in December.
“Because she’s a freshman she is a little behind,” Hazeltine said. “But she’s so athletic she will work her way into playing time. She could be a really good rebounder for us if we can get her healthy and back on the court.”