WALLA WALLA — Coming off its most successful season in program history, the Whitman women’s basketball team is dealing with lofty expectations.
After an unexpected trip to the Elite 8 last season and a 13-3 record in conference play, the Missionaries return nine players for the upcoming campaign. Whitman’s deepest postseason run in school history has resulted in increased hype this preseason.
“There’s a lot of expectations from last year,” senior Meghan White said. “We really want to take the expectations game-by-game and not focus on that, but really focus on winning every single game.”
The Missionaries enter the season as the favorites in the Northwest Conference, according to the NWC Coaches’ Poll. Whitman is also highly regarded nationally — D3Hoops.com has the Missionaries ranked 11th and DIII News has the team slotted 12th.
But coaches and players alike understand preseason rankings don’t ensure success — that must be earned.
“It’s exciting,” head coach Michelle Ferenz said. “Everything on preseason polls is reflective of last year. We had such a good year and such a great run in the tournament. I wasn’t surprised. I kind of expected it, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Instead, the Missionaries are focused on taking the season one day at a time. With four seniors and four juniors back in the fold, the Missionaries will feature a stable of upperclassmen.
Whitman lost only two players from last year’s team and returns four of its starters. But the Missionaries also added three talented freshman to its bench and the team understands it will need to figure out how to effectively mesh the old with the new.
“We have a lot of people back from last year,” junior point guard Heather Johns said. “The other side of that is we have some new kids. They’re really good and they have the potential to make an impact with our team but we have to get everyone going in the same direction. That’s not necessarily the direction we went in last year, it’s not quite the same style of play.”
The Missionaries are incorporating a more run-and-gun approach to their offense this season, Ferenz said. Whitman does not boast much interior size, but the team more than makes up for it with their speed.
“We’re going to try and run,” Ferenz said. “Heather loves to push and our post players love to run. That’s our strength. We’re not a big, bulky team. A half-court power game isn’t going to be our thing, it’s going to be about ball movement, player movement and getting up and down the court.”
The Missionaries will count on senior Sarah Anderegg, who led the Missionaries with 13.7 points per game last season. She led the conference by shooting a blistering 53.5 percent from the floor and ranked third in scoring last season. She was also named to the NWC first-team.
Anderegg received preseason praise of her own, as DIII News selected her to the West Region’s Top 24. Ferenz praised the senior forward for her team-first style and dedication during her four years at Whitman.
“She’s not a kid that thinks about herself first so individual improvement has been huge for her,” Ferenz said. “She really honestly has no ego. She’s very talented but it’s really about what she can do for the team and it always has been.”
Anderegg is more than happy to put the ball in the hoop, but she’s more concerned with the team’s win-loss column.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Anderegg said. “Whether that’s score, I’ll work hard at doing that. It would be great to lead the conference. It would be great to lead the team. Whatever the team needs from me, I’m willing to do it.”
Johns, who joined the Missionaries as a sophomore last season, ran point for the team and averaged 11.9 points and 3.4 assists per game. Johns’ play landed her on the NWC second-team.
Johns will be tasked with bolstering the Missionaries’ frantic attack, as her speed will be crucial to Whitman’s success.
“I’m not sure she’s a classic point guard,” Ferenz said. “She’s a scoring point guard. She’s really starting to grow into the role and it’s a hard job being the floor leader.”
White, a 6-foot senior center, will also provide the Missionaries with an experienced interior presence. White grabbed 8.6 rebounds per game last year, which ranked third in the conference. White finished NWC honorable mention.
With a myriad of experience and talent returning, the Missionaries are not buying into the preseason hype. Instead, the team is looking to win each day, whether that’s a practice, game or scrimmage.
“Since last season ended we took it by the horns and realized the pressure is going to be on us,” senior guard Tiffani Traver said. “It’s a matter of finding a way to deal with that pressure. I think so far, we’ve been successful.”
Whitman begins the season with a tough test, as the Missionaries face No. 5 St. Thomas (Minn.) in the Whit Challenge at the Whitworth Fieldhouse in Spokane at 5 p.m. tonight. Ferenz said the Missionaries’ opening tilt will be a barometer game to see where the team is at.
But the Whitman players are up for the challenge.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” White said. “It really starts our season off well by having the toughest competition out there and seeing where we’re at as a team compared to another top competitor. It will really gauge what we need to work on and what we need for the future.”