Johns leads Whits into tourney’s third round

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WALLA WALLA — When Heather Johns transferred to Whitman College before her sophomore year, she jokingly told some friends maybe the school will win a national title now that she’s in town.

The 2010 graduate of Southridge High might want to pursue a career as a psychic as the Missionaries are four wins from making that a reality.

Whitman College (28-1) hosts Christopher Newport University, located in Newport News, Va., at 7 p.m. today at the Sherwood Center in an NCAA Division III national tournament third-round game.

“I never thought we would get to the national tournament, because it wasn’t something that Whitman had ever done before — it seemed out of reach,” Johns said. “When we got to the Elite Eight (last year), it was like it is very possible.

“It has been a ride that I have enjoyed, enjoyed with my teammates. I’m lucky to have come at the right time where the team came together and is talented enough to do this.”

Texas-Tyler faces top-ranked Thomas More at 5 p.m. in another third-round game. The winners of the two matchups meet at 7 p.m. Saturday in Walla Walla.

Johns played one season at Saint Martin’s in Lacy before transferring to the Walla Walla school. She has been an instant success, winning Northwest Conference player of the year honors this season and meshing with a talented group of players.

“If someone had told me my senior year (of high school) that we’d be hosting a second round of the NCAA tournament, let alone playing in it, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Sarah Anderegg, a senior at Whitman. “It’s been a wonderful four year transition for me.

“It’s been a memorable, exciting experience. I know that it is something that I, and the rest of the girls, will never forget.”

Whitman isn’t just a team that is happy to be at this point, however. Led by Anderegg, a conference first-team selection along with Meghan White, the Missionaries have been ranked in the top five all season, including No. 1 for awhile. They were the last Division III team to be unbeaten, and as Johns said, they reached the final eight last season.

They opened the season with 26 consecutive wins before losing to rival Whitworth 68-65 in the Northwest Conference championship game on March 1.

“It was a great thing for us in the long run,” Johns said. “It opened our eyes that we weren’t unbeatable. That is very important heading into the tournament. It set things in perspective. We were able to reevaluate parts of our game that needed work.

“Our team hates to lose. So it lit some fires and got us going again.”

The Missionaries certainly showed that in the opening round of the national tournament, scoring a season high in points while thumping Chapman College 106-51 a week ago.

“I think our conference was one of the strongest Division III conferences in the nation,” Johns said, “so we are used to playing at that high level. I’m not sure Chapman was ready for that.”

The Missionaries weren’t done, though. They then exacted revenge against Whitworth last Saturday, winning 73-67 in what they expected to be their final home game.

Instead, Whitworth was awarded another weekend of games.

“The community support, the student support, it’s been unbelievable,” Anderegg said. “It has been so helpful in picking up these crucial wins. Saturday, during a close game, it was the cheering and the fans that kept us alive. We fed off of that.”

With nearly 1,000 people in attendance last weekend, the team is hoping for similar support this weekend — and a pair of wins to earn a spot in the final four in Stevens Point, Wis.

“Last year, we came in not sure where we stood; kind of as underdogs,” Johns said. “This year, we knew we were good and knowing that we could go far. From the beginning we have run with it and had the mindset that we would win.”

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