WALLA WALLA — For Whitman College’s Michelle Ferenz, wins are only a number.
Ferenz, who has guided the Missionary women’s basketball team to a perfect 8-0 record so far this season, collected her 179th career victory on Dec. 13.
That figure, however, represents more than just a number.
With the 80-57 victory against Corban University, she passed John Wilcox as the winningest coach in the history of the Whitman women’s program.
“I didn’t even realize it until Saturday, that the night before, when we beat Corban, was 179,” Ferenz said. “Then (my husband) said something. I didn’t think anything of it. Then they made an announcement the next night, which is cool.
“But I think it’s more cool to be 8-0 and (ranked) No. 4.”
The record-setting win hardly slowed down Ferenz, who was busy extending her win total with a 78-65 victory against Eastern Oregon the following night.
Ferenz isn’t slowing down to savor her achievement. Sure, the record is gratifying and the recognition is warranted, but she’s more concerned with how she impacts her players — both on and off the court.
“That’s what you hope for in your coaching and your teaching is that you’re making a positive impact,” Ferenz said. “Maybe you’re not always as appreciated as you’d like to be, but someday your players look back and go, ‘wow, I was pretty lucky to be in this situation and I was pretty lucky to be a part of this program.’”
Maybe she gets that coaching acumen from the guy she just passed on the wins list — Wilcox.
Wilcox is a bona fide legend among Whitman sports figures. He began as an assistant football coach from 1967 to 1975 before taking the helm of the men’s basketball program. After revitalizing the men’s program, Wilcox turned his attention to the women’s program during the 1980s. He led the Missionaries to a conference title in the 1988 season and took home Coach of the Year honors twice.
Under Wilcox, the Missionaries reached the postseason five times.
After he was elected to the Whitman Hall of Fame in 2011, it was only fitting that Ferenz did his introduction.
“John is absolutely one of the nicest men,” Ferenz said. “He comes to a lot of our games. He walks up, wishes me good luck and gives me a hug. John has never been anything but just absolutely a fan. He really loves the game and he really loves student-athletes. I love that he’s still interested in the program.”
Ferenz, who got in contact with some of Wilcox’s former players, said it was a challenge trying to consolidate the flood of stories and anecdotes she received in response to Wilcox’s Hall of Fame induction.
But Wilcox’s former players aren’t the only ones keeping up with their coach.
After Whitman’s improbable run to the Elite 8 last season, Ferenz got a glimpse of the program’s impact on former players.
“When we went to the tournament last year, I probably got an email and a text probably from eight to 10 kids off of every team,” Ferenz said. “They were just so excited for the program. These were women who had played on teams that should have gone to the tournament.”
It was the first time in the program’s history that Whitman reached the NCAA tournament. After coming close in 2004, 2006 and 2009, Ferenz said the Missionaries’ tourney run was an accomplishment all of her players, current and former, could bask in.
“They were just so excited for this group to finally break through,” Ferenz said of her former players. “They’re following the program and they’re excited for what’s going on. It would have been a really empty feeling not to have them contact me. It was a nice affirmation that we’re doing things right and we’re treating the kids right.”
When Ferenz took over the program in 2001, she inherited a team that had finished 7-17 during the previous season. Since the 2001 season, however, her success has been nothing short of staggering. Ferenz boasts a 180-132 record during that span and she has guided the Missionaries to the most regular season victories in a season (20) and their highest postseason ranking ever (No. 11) last year.
But back in 2001, Ferenz was the third head coach in as many years. She said the early years were difficult, but they also provided her with challenges that made her a better coach.
“There was a tough period there, where there was inconsistency in the coaching and the recruiting,” she said. “When I got the job, it was starting back at ground zero. The recruiting had been completely neglected. It took a few years. It’s a growth experience. I’m not sure I knew exactly what I was doing all the time.”
Ferenz said she quickly learned the challenges of recruiting to a small, academic-minded school in Eastern Washington. But instead of dwelling on those difficulties, she learned to recruit players that would respond to her coaching style.
“You have to try to meet the girls at least halfway,” Ferenz said. “You have to really reach out to them and make those connections. They need to feel like they’re important and part of something. The last few years, I think we’ve done a much better job of that as a staff.”
Now, in her 13th season at the helm, Ferenz is a two-time Northwest Conference Coach of the Year. She has the Missionaries off to an undefeated start and on track for another NCAA tournament appearance.
But rather than getting complacent, Ferenz is eager to win every day — whether that’s in practice, games or on the recruiting trail.
“We have no illusions — that part of why we’re ranked so high is because of our finish last year,” she said. “We still have a lot of season to play and rankings don’t mean a whole lot. To dwell on last season shortchanges this season. We’re a different team than we were last year.”
Ferenz, and the rest of her squad, are eager to prove last year’s success wasn’t just a one-year occurrence. The Missionaries are motivated, confident and talented — just like their head coach.
“One of the challenges, especially to the seniors, (is) we have to embrace every day and every challenge and every game,” Ferenz said. “We’ve got to love this experience and this journey. They have done a great job of living that.”