WALLA WALLA — The excitement in Michelle Ferenz’s voice was palpable.
In the midst of organizing a cross-country trek for a berth in the NCAA Division III Regional semifinals, the Whitman College women’s basketball coach couldn’t mask her elation in leading the Missionaries to Friday night’s game against Emory in Williamstown, Mass.
“We’re thrilled to be advancing (to the Sweet 16),” Ferenz said Tuesday, before the Whitman team boarded a bus for Spokane.
The Missionaries planned to practice in Spokane Wednesday morning before flying to Hartford, Conn., and then driving 90 miles to Williams, Mass.
The travel was the first hurdle for the team.
“It’s been a little stressful,” Ferenz said of coordinating the cross-country trip with the NCAA. “It’s interesting with the NCAA putting teams where they do (for the national tournament). Williamstown makes Walla Walla seem accessible!”
The Missionaries earned a spot in the regional semifinals after beating Cal Lutheran and Lewis & Clark last weekend in Portland.
After losing in the Northwest Conference semifinals to Whitworth on Feb. 21, Whitman stood at 20-5 on the season (the most victories ever for the Missionary women), and Ferenz said she felt the Missionaries had a good shot at receiving an at-large bid from the NCAA selection committee.
“We’ve always known our conference is good,” she said, as NWC foes Lewis & Clark and conference champion Whitworth also made the national tournament. “Our strength of schedule against good NWC teams, and not having any bad losses, helped (with the selection).
“After losing to Whitworth (in the NWC semis), I wasn’t sure we’d get in,” Ferenz said. “You’re not sure how you’re going to rank, it’s a pretty complicated process — even at the Division III level. I thought we had about a 50-50 chance to get in, so I was glad we got in!”
When they received news of their selection, it was celebration time for the Missionaries.
“It was pretty emotional,” Ferenz said. “There were a lot of tears and hugging. We were thrilled. It’s such a great group, we just wanted to keep playing.”
And keep playing they did, handing Cal Lutheran a 61-37 whipping Friday night before holding off L&C 66-57 Saturday to advance.
This is the first time in Ferenz’s 12 years with the Missionaries that three NWC teams have advanced to the NCAA national tournament, she thought, and Whitman is now the lone NWC representative in the national tourney. On Friday, Emory made quick work of Whitworth in Atlanta in the first round, and Saturday, of course, Whitman ousted Lewis & Clark — the second time this season the Missionaries beat the Pioneers on their home court.
“The team just played really well last weekend,” Ferenz said. “This team has been so focused all season. From the first day of workouts, they worked really hard and embraced everything we asked them to do.
“We really focused on defensive rebounding, and we’re a much better rebounding team,” she said.
Indeed, Whitman ranks second in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-13.3 rebounds a game.
“Offensively, we’ve always had a balanced attack,” Ferenz said. “It’s not our style of play to have one player with 20 points a game. Different players at different times step up. In the long run, that’s helped our confidence.”
The Missionaries spent Wednesday afternoon and evening flying into Hartford before completing the trip to Williamstown.
Ironically, Whitman’s women opened last season at Williams College, the location of Friday’s game against Emory.
“In a strange way it’s come full circle,” Ferenz said of the Missionaries’ return. “We’ve been to Williamstown, we’ve played in the gym.”
As early as Tuesday, Ferenz was ready to put the travel behind her and focus on the regional semifinal.
“We need to get there and get ourselves ready,” she said. “The time difference is going to be significant. To get a day under our belts (in Massachusetts) is important.”
Tip-off Friday is 6 p.m. in Williamstown, 3 p.m. locally. Information on live stats and a live streaming video feed can be found on Whitman’s website, www.whitman.edu/whitman-athletics.
The winner of the Emory-Whitman game faces the winner of the Ithaca, N.Y.-Willams College tilt which follows the 6 p.m. game.
Ferenz has a good idea what to expect against Emory, a larger DIII school in Atlanta in the University Athletic Association (UAA) that finished with a 24-3 record and is ranked 14th in the nation.
“They won the UAA, which is known as the Airplane Conference because they fly to so many games,” Ferenz said. “We match up with them pretty well. They’ll pressure and try to run, and they’re more guard-oriented than we are.”
And the Missionaries are ready, their coach feels.
“I’m extremely pleased with how they’re playing,” Ferenz said. “You always want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season.
“We’re excited! I don’t think a Whitman team has ever been this far, in a team sport,” she said. “It’s been a great season. We’ve had great support from the Whitman community and Walla Walla community.
“Hopefully, we get one more weekend to play!”