WALLA WALLA — When Whitman College tipped off its 2013-14 women’s basketball season with a 77-76 victory over No. 5-ranked St. Thomas, Minn., at the Whitworth Classic in Spokane back in mid-November, Missionaries coach Michelle Ferenz surely knew that something was up.
“We were 11th in the (D3hoops.com) rankings at the time,” Ferenz remembered. “And I told the girls after the game that this might have been the only game they were expected to lose until we got to conference play.”
But not even Ferenz could have imagined that three months and change later, her team would still be undefeated, ranked No. 1 nationally and the top seed in this week’s Northwest Conference postseason tournament for the first time in school history.
The Missionaries (25-0) entertain the University of Puget Sound Thursday night at Sherwood Center to begin what they hope will be another long run in the NCAA Division III playoffs. Assuming they can get past the Loggers for the third time this season, the Whits will be at home again Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s Whitworth-George Fox first-round game in Newberg, Ore.
Whitman is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the conference tournament and is bidding for a second straight showing in the 64-team national tournament. As an at-large invitee last year, the Missionaries advanced all the way to the Division III Elite Eight before losing to Williams College 63-53 on the Ephs’ home court in Williamstown, Mass.
With all but two players returning from that 23-6 team, the Missionaries have been feeding off of last year’s success ever since.
“That’s the key, the process we went through last year,” Ferenz said. “I was so proud of the progress we made and the maturity we showed. This year the girls have just continued to develop.
“They have improved not only on the court but also their mental outlook, their maturity and their confidence. And they have had to come from behind to win some tough games. The sign of a good team is not always playing your best but still finding a way to win.”
That was never more true than the night of Jan. 11 in Sherwood Center when the Whits trailed Pacific Lutheran by 12 points in the second half but rallied to force overtime and eventually won the game 68-61.
“That game was a real wake-up call for us,” Ferenz said. “We didn’t bring our ‘A’ game that night. We learned our lesson.
“I’m not sure we have always played great since then, but we have always showed up ready to compete. That whole (PLU) game was a struggle, but we found a way to get it into overtime.”
Of the four starters returning from last season, junior Heather Johns has established herself as a top-flight point guard while leading the conference in scoring with a 19-point average.
Sarah Anderegg, a 6-foot-2 senior post, is averaging 16.4 points per game, third best in the conference, and 8.1 rebounds, fourth best. Another senior post, 6-0 Meghan White, is third in rebounding with an 8.3 average. And Johns averages 3.3 assists and senior Tiffani Traver 2.8 to rank fourth and sixth, respectively, in conference games.
Hailey Mcdonald, a sophomore guard, is the team’s fifth starter while senior Marah Alindogan, junior Hallie Buse, sophomore Hailey Maeda and freshmen Alysse Ketner, Chelsi Brewer and Katie Gray all contribute valuable minutes off the Missionary bench.
“They have all had their moments,” Ferenz said. “It takes other kids, you can’t always just rely on your starters.”
But it hasn’t been entirely a smooth ride, either.
Whitman’s depth was challenged before the season ever began when 6-0 junior center Heather Lovelace, who averaged 6.4 points and 2.5 rebounds as a sophomore, suffered a knee injury that shelved her for the season.
“She played a lot as a sophomore and could have been a starter for us,” Ferenz said of Lovelace. “She was kind of instant offense for us coming off the bench, and that hurt our depth before we ever hit the court.”
Alindogan, who underwent knee surgery midway through last season, was slow coming back and has only appeared in 18 games this season. Buse has battled a foot injury and Maeda has played through shoulder and back issues.
“We kind of knew going into the season that our depth was shrinking,” Ferenz said. “But every team goes through it.
“We are relatively healthy now in terms of where we started. We’re in what we call our February bodies, with just the normal aches and pains.”
Whitman’s rise to the top of the national rankings was made possible when defending national champion Depauw University suffered a 65-64 loss to Ohio Wesleyan over the weekend that not only knocked the Tigers out of the top spot but also snapped their 58-game winning streak.
“It’s a neat honor for our program overall to get that kind of national recognition,” Ferenz said of her team’s No. 1 ranking. “The girls have won the games, taken care of business and deserve to be in that conversation.”
But Ferenz and her players are smart enough to know that the polls won’t mean a thing once the ball goes up.
“It’s great, it’s wonderful, but you can’t put a whole lot of stock in it,” Ferenz said. “We talked about it for a few minutes, then we got our film out and started getting ready for UPS.”