WALLA WALLA — The Whitman College men’s basketball team is tired of finishing in second place.
After compiling a 19-8 overall record and a 12-4 conference mark, the Missionaries finished second to Whitworth in the Northwest Conference last season.
It was the third straight season the Missionaries have finished behind the Pirates.
“There’s just a great vibe and buzz right now of working hard,” Whitman head coach Eric Bridgeland said. “Every year is a step farther and farther to the point where there’s no other step to take but to win this sucker.”
And Missionary players are also getting tired of finishing as the conference runner-up.
“I’ve had a sour taste in my mouth the past couple years,” senior guard Josh Duckworth said. “That doesn’t come from not making the tournament. More so, just feeling a little disappointed towards the end of the season.
“Whether we make it or not, that’s ultimately up to us,” he continued. “At the end of the season, if we leave everything out there, I’ll be fine with that.”
Bridgeland enters his sixth season with Whitman when the Missionaries host Old Westbury at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Sherwood Center.
After inheriting a program with one winning season in its history, Bridgeland’s success has been staggering. The Missionaries have compiled the best four-year span in the program’s history and finished with the most conference wins in program history last season.
With Whitworth owning the conference crown since 2009, Bridgeland and his squad are desperate to bring a title to Whitman.
“Guys want to get to the tournament,” Bridgeland said. “But more than that, they want to get a conference title for Whitman. That’s what really drives us. We’re supported by an awesome administration. We love our faculty. We love our students. Whitman deserves a conference championship.”
The Missionaries possess a versatile, talented roster this season, Bridgeland said.
With senior forward Ben Eisenhardt, senior guard Josh Duckworth and junior forward Matt Mounier, the Missionaries welcome back three all-conference selections from a season ago.
Eisenhardt, the NWC player of the year, led Whitman with 16.4 points per game. He also grabbed 6.2 rebounds per game and will be counted on again this year.
“Ben is going to play pro once he gets his degree,” Bridgeland said. “He’s just that good. He’s a 6-foot-10 forward that can shoot the 3 and post. He’s very skilled and he’s very driven. It all starts with him.”
Duckworth, a second-team NWC selection, averaged 14.5 points, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Mounier, a forward, was named honorable mention all-conference after averaging 14.1 points per game and nailing 57 3-pointers.
“Just from coming back from this summer and seeing where everyone was at, you can tell that a lot of the guys put in their own individual work,” Duckworth said. “I think this is probably the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here. It definitely shows when we’re out there on the court.”
With Eisenhardt down low flanked by multifaceted talent, Bridgeland said the Missionaries can play in a variety of ways.
“We’re very, very versatile,” Bridgeland said. “We’re deep and we have a lot of weapons at a lot of different places. We will pressure and we’ll always run. I can’t really point at one thing. Ben’s versatile and good, but then you’ve got Josh who’s one of the best creating guards around.”
The Missionaries were picked to finish second in the preseason coaches poll. But both players and coaches are quick to throw out the early-season expectations.
“We don’t want to come in second,” senior guard LuQuam Thompson said. “We’ve been coming in second the last two, three years. (We’re) just trying to get over that hump and make it to the tournament and make a run in the tournament.”
Bridgeland said the Missionaries are still working on adjusting to the talent on the roster during the preseason. For Whitman to meet its goals this year, the team has to take it one game at a time, he said.
“I think we’ve got the talent definitely to do it this year,” junior guard Clay Callahan said. “But we’ve also had that in past years so we really just need to stay focused. Avoid complacency, that seems like to have been a problem that’s gotten us in the past.”