WALLA WALLA — If Sunday’s return trip from New England was an omen, the Whitman College women’s basketball program is in first-class shape.
The Missionaries spent the weekend in Williamstown, Mass., where they defeated Emory University 67-62 in the NCAA Division III’s Sweet 16 before losing to host Williams College 63-53 in the tournament’s Elite Eight.
But when coach Michelle Ferenz and her players began making preparations for their return to Walla Walla, they discovered that they weren’t booked on a commercial flight. So the NCAA, which is responsible for all tournament travel schedules, put the Missionaries on a charter plane.
After a short bus ride from Williamstown to Albany, N.Y., the Missionaries had the aircraft all to themselves on a direct flight from Albany International to Walla Walla.
“That was a unique experience,” Ferenz said as she spent the following morning in her Sherwood Center office reviewing her most successful season in 12 years as Whitman’s head coach while beginning the task of restocking her roster.
“It was a nice way to travel, but it was still a long trip home,” the coach said. “We are all pretty tired, but you learn something new every day.”
With just two seniors on this year’s roster, Ferenz won’t have to learn to recognize a lot of new faces when the Missionaries reassemble next fall. But she does plan to bring in four or five new players.
“That’s the plan. That’s the goal,” Ferenz said. “We have some spots to fill. And you want to have players ready to step in a year from now when we lose this year’s juniors.”
Ferenz said she has identified some players, but she won’t know for sure who she’ll be adding to the roster until May 1.
“That’s the day our potentials have to pay their deposit,” she said. “When they pay that deposit to hold their spot, they are basically committing.
“Obviously, we would like to know a little sooner.”
Senior Mary Madden, a 5-foot-11 forward, leaves the biggest hole in Whitman’s lineup. Madden, who averaged 8.3 points and five rebounds over the course of the season, scored 10 points and snagged six rebounds in a 66-57 victory over Northwest Conference rival Lewis & Clark in the first round of the tournament and tallied 13 points in Whitman’s victory over Emory.
“She has always been a very steady contributor for us,” Ferenz said of Madden. “Especially against Lewis & Clark and then again against Emory when we were struggling, Mary stepped up and found ways to score key baskets.
“She’s also been a great leader, a team captain, and the team reflected her personality of being a humble, hard worker. She won’t get any all-conference nods, but she was the glue that kept us together.”
Whitman’s other senior, 5-7 guard Emilie Gilbert, saw minimal playing time after joining the team late. Gilbert is a strong cross country athlete and didn’t turn out for basketball until her fall running season concluded.
Everyone else returns, including 6-2 junior forward/post Sarah Anderegg, who led the team with a 13.7 scoring average; 5-7 sophomore guard Heather Johns, who averaged 11.9 points; and 6-0 junior post Meghan White, who led the Missionaries in rebounding with an 8.6 average.
Anderegg was an all-Northwest Conference first-team selection, Johns was named to the second team and White earned honorable mention. Ferenz was selected coach of the year.
“It’s a fairly long list,” Ferenz said when asked about key contributors on this year’s team, which finished with a 23-6 record, the first 20-win season for the head coach.
“We always saw glimpses of her talent and ability,” Ferenz said of Anderegg. “But she really grew up and matured this year. I am so proud of how much progress she has made, and I hope she continues to build on that progress.”
Johns took over as the team’s back court leader, Ferenz said, filling the void that was created when Jenele Peterson graduated and her understudy, Kelly Peterson, opted not to turn out for her senior season for academic reasons.
“She did a great job,” Ferenz said of Johns. “She was definitely a different type of point guard, but she was a tough competitor who got recognized by the conference.”
And White was yet another player who showed steady progress throughout the season, Ferenz said.
“I love ’em all,” Ferenz said. “This team had such great chemistry, and that propelled us.
“It’s so hard to compare teams because every team is unique and different. I have been blessed with some really great teams at Whitman, and wonderful players to coach.”
Whitman’s success this season is bound to help in the recruiting process. And the Missionaries’ emergence as one of the strongest programs in what is being recognized as a power Division III conference enhances the school’s postseason potential.
The Whits were one of two NWC teams invited to participate in this year’s national tournament after the Missionaries lost to Whitworth 55-54 in the first round of the conference playoffs.
“We are now one of the top conferences in the country, right up there with the best,” Ferenz said. “We know that if we can compete in our conference, we can compete nationally.”
And even after 22 years of coaching — 10 years in the high school ranks before arriving on the Whitman campus — Ferenz has no intention of slowing down.
“I enjoy what I am doing,” she said. “I won’t lie and say it is all fun and games, because it is hard work and long hours. And I don’t see it getting any easier.
“But I had a lot of fun this year, and the hardest part losing to Williams on Saturday is knowing that I won’t be going to practice today. But I am lucky, because I really love my job.”
The only negative, she said, is not being able to watch her daughters play as often as she would like. Twin sisters Kate and Mikayla Ferenz were sophomore starters on this year’s Wa-Hi girls basketball team.
“That’s the hardest part,” the coach said. “I probably saw them play in person about six or seven games this year. But once January and February roll around, it becomes difficult.”
She does watch her girls on film, however, though she doesn’t critique them unless they ask.
“My role with them is not to coach them,” she said. “They have coaches. I have to be Mom.”
That could one day change if Kate and Mikayla decide to play at Whitman. And through the discerning eye of a college recruiter, Ferenz believes her 5-foot-10 twins have the talent to play at the next level.
“It’s not a topic we bring up,” the coach said. “They are only sophomores.
“But they have spent a lot of time at Sherwood Center. They come to our games and sit right behind the bench, and on occasion my players will go out to Wa-Hi and watch them play.
“If they decide to come here, that would be great. But they have to do their own thing.”
However, a couple of more seasons like the one just completed might make it difficult to pass up the chance to play for such a first-class operation.