WALLA WALLA — The people have spoken.
The Whitman women’s basketball team is keeping its postseason focus on walk, not talk.
The d3hoops.com voting panel on Monday elevated the Missionaries to the summit of its women’s national Top 25, making them the first team in Whitman College athletic history to be ranked No. 1 in the country since the school began competing at the NCAA Division III level.
Another set of honors followed on Tuesday.
The Northwest Conference named junior point guard Heather Johns its Player of the Year, selected senior post Sarah Anderegg first-team all-conference, placed senior power forward Meghan White on the second team, and named head coach Michelle Ferenz Coach of the Year.
These accolades were noted, celebrated briefly, then followed by practices which looked back with brutal honesty at Whitman’s deficiencies in its final conference game against Puget Sound, its opponent in a NWC Tournament semifinal at 6 p.m. Thursday at Sherwood Center.
“We need to be in the mode of survive-and-advance,” said Ferenz. “On Monday, we said, ‘Congrats, well done,’ and then it was ‘Okay, here’s what we didn’t do last time against UPS.’ They handled it well.
“This year, we’ve had the maturity to handle success and to keep it in perspective,” she added. “Being ranked No. 1 doesn’t get you anything.”
Not when your very realistic goal is to be No. 1. Whitman (25-0) romped to the regular-season conference title — the program’s first since the 2003-04 season — and is a virtual lock to secure an NCAA Tournament berth, regardless of its performance in the conference playoffs.
But the Missionaries are taking nothing for granted, especially as they seek redemption after dropping a tournament semifinal at home last year.
“Last year we almost, for lack of a better word, choked,” Anderegg said. “We were unprepared for what was going to happen in the first round. We lost, and we thought our season was over.”
Whitman ended up receiving an at-large bid to the national tournament and blazing into the Elite Eight. But the lesson was learned.
“Just being in the playoffs isn’t enough for us. We’re out there to win the tournament, to cut down the nets in front of our fans that have been incredibly supportive of us,” said Anderegg.
“It’s hard not to be excited being considered the No. 1 team in the country.” she said. “We try not to focus on the rankings, and we say it is a number, but it is really hard not to think about. We were very excited, but I know that our focus is on what is happening Thursday, which is us and UPS. That’s all that matters right now.”
Anderegg said that rising to No. 1 in the nation at the end of the season made the honor more gratifying, and that it would “carry (Whitman) into the playoffs on the high.”
“We definitely want to continue that,” she said.
“I am so proud of these young women,” Whitman Director of Athletics Dean Snider wrote in an email. “They have prepared and played like champions all year long. To get this national recognition is a well-deserved honor.
“This is our first-ever No. 1 national ranking in the NCAA era; it may be our first No. 1 ranking, period. It certainly is historic, and emblematic of our college’s excellence at the national level.
“This is what all our programs are striving for and capable for,” he added. “The young women in basketball are leading the charge.”
Snider noted that Ferenz, who in December became the winningest coach in the history of the program, “leads by example.”
“She has been fabulous,” he wrote. “The team takes their cue from her: always composed, focused and working toward the goal.”
That, Ferenz said, is the plan this week. This team has maintained a high intensity level, a playoff intensity, throughout the season, and need not reinvent the wheel.
“This is the beginning of the last journey,” she said. “I want them to continue to do what they’ve been doing and stay true to themselves, to play at the same high level and leave it all on the court.”
Whitman swept its conference home-and-home against the Loggers (16-9), winning 84-62 on Jan. 10 in Walla Walla and pulling away after halftime for a 76-64 victory Feb. 8 in Tacoma.
The Loggers favor a quick tempo and will challenge the Missionaries with their versatility on offense. Junior forward Amanda Forshay, a first-team all-conference selection, was the top 3-point shooter (42.9 percent) in the conference — and is but one of the weapons Whitman must defuse to advance.
“They are very aggressive offensively,” Ferenz said. “We definitely need to be disciplined on defense and take care of the boards. We also need to execute and get ours. A lot of our wins came down to us getting separation with stops. We need to score and value the ball when we have it.
“I don’t think we played great over there.”
Anderegg called the Loggers “very dynamic.”
“They have shooters, they have girls that are good at driving and they have a really solid post player,” she said. “They basically have people at every position who are talented. Forshay is vey good; I matched up against her last time we played, and she had a great game against me.
“I’m determined not to let that happen again.”
Anderegg said that Whitman must match up well against Puget Sound’s other all-conference players, post Katy Ainslie and guard Emily Sheldon.
“If we do that, we should be golden,” she said.
In the other conference semifinal Thursday, 13th-ranked George Fox hosts Whitworth. The NWC Championship game is Saturday at the home venue of the highest remaining seed.
Whitman hopes that means another packed barn at Sherwood.
“We worked hard all year to have the home court in the conference tournament,” said Ferenz. “This is winning time.”