WALLA WALLA — What a difference a couple of months can make.
When Whitman College women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz was in the midst of preparing her team for its season opener back in mid-November, she had serious concerns that the Missionaries might be weeks and weeks away from being ready for the rigors of a difficult Northwest Conference schedule.
And of greatest concern were a pair of early conference home games against the likes of Pacific Lutheran University and University of Puget Sound. Lose those games, Ferenz knew, and the likelihood of capturing one of the league’s four postseason tickets would be precarious at best.
“It was very unusual,” Ferenz said of her schedule. “And on top of that, both PLU and UPS were returning a lot more kids than we were. They were going to be at a point where we wouldn’t be.
“With so many new faces, a new point guard, kids playing new positions, I worried that we wouldn’t be ready for those games. And you have to take care of your home court in this league to have any chance of being in the top four.”
Well, flash forward to tonight’s NWC game against Whitworth University in Spokane. The Missionaries find themselves sitting all alone atop the league standings with a 4-0 record, they’re 11-1 overall and suddenly ranked No. 19 in the D3Hoops.com national top 25.
The Whits survived those early conference home games with relative ease, defeating PLU 71-51 and UPS 66-52. Last weekend they continued to impress their NWC rivals with road victories at No. 5-ranked Lewis & Clark College, 88-72, and at Pacific University, 69-54.
Whitman’s only loss thus far this season came Nov. 25 in La Grande, when Eastern Oregon University rallied in the second half to force overtime and then came away with a 67-58 victory. That defeat, Ferenz claims, might be as important as any game her team has played so far this season.
“In a weird kind of a way, it was a real confidence booster for the team,” Ferenz said. “We had a good lead, missed some shots down the stretch and got beat. And the kids were really upset about losing.”
Whitman also played that game without Mary Madden, a 5-foot-11 forward who is the senior leader of the team. Madden, who missed the game with an ankle injury, is averaging 7.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
“Even though we lost, it was one of those games where other players played really well against a very good Eastern Oregon team. The girls had to find their roles and they kind of blossomed in that game, and it has continued.”
Whitman began the season trying to regroup after the loss of leading scorer Jenele Peterson to graduation and second-leading scorer Kelly Peterson, who opted to pass on her senior year of basketball in order to focus on academics. Ferenz had been counting on Kelly Peterson to anchor her back court.
“There were a lot of question marks at the guard positions,” Ferenz said. “I was not knowing how it would come together.”
Just fine seems to be the answer.
“Heather Johns has played really well for us,” Ferenz said. “Tiffani Traver has improved, and Marah Alindogan is doing a good job as well.”
Juniors Traver and Alindogan and sophomore Johns have played the majority of minutes at the guard positions for Ferenz.
Johns is second on the team in scoring with a 12.1 average and leads the team with 3.7 assists per game. Traver averages 7.7 points and 3.5 assists, and Alindogan is scoring 4.2 points and dishing out 1.8 assists per outing.
Sarah Anderegg, a 6-2 junior post, has taken over as the team’s scoring leader with a 15.8 average, and her 62.2 shooting percentage from the field tops the conference. Heather Lovelace, a 6-0 sophomore, averages 8.5 points per game and is connecting on 56.5 percent of her shots from the floor, and 6-0 junior Meghan White carries a 7.6 average on 54.3 percent shooting, which gives Whitman three of the top four field-goal percentage shooters in the conference.
White also leads the team with 7.8 rebounds per game.
“We’re a different team from last year, it’s not the same, but we’re doing a good job,” Ferenz said.
And with Emilie Gilbert, a 5-7 guard and the only other senior on the roster, playing the fewest minutes after joining the team late following the cross country season, the Whits are still a relatively young team that should have their best days ahead of them.
Ferenz can remember only one other time when her team cracked the national rankings, and she’s not sure of the year. She does know that there is plenty of work still to be done this season.
“We’ve still got 12 league games to play, beginning tonight against Whitworth,” Ferenz said. “And we know this is going to be a tough game.”
The Pirates are 2-2 in conference play but stand 9-3 overall.
“They dropped a couple of conference games,” Ferenz said. “But so far they haven’t lost on their home court.”
And the Northwest Conference appears to be as strong as ever. Lewis & Clark, 12-1 overall, and George Fox, 10-3, are tied for second place with 3-1 records. Pacific, 9-3, and UPS, 9-4, share fourth place with Whitworth at 2-2 in league play. Only PLU (4-7), Linfield (1-8) and Willamette (0-12) have losing records.
Whitman travels to George Fox Saturday for its fourth consecutive conference road game. The Whits play six of their final 10 conference games at Sherwood Center.
“We are in a brutal part of our schedule right now,” Ferenz said.
It should get easier, the coach knows, but she won’t allow herself to think in those terms.
“We can’t think about the big picture,” she said, “Every team poses a different challenge. We know that Whitworth is going to be hungry tonight.
“My expectation is to play our best basketball in January and February, and that hasn’t changed for me. If we do that, we will be in the playoffs.”
Considering how well the teams excelled in November and December, there’s plenty of reason to believe that a conference championship is a realistic goal.