WALLA WALLA — Michelle Ferenz’s name being called as winner of the Coach of the Year of the Blue Mountain Sports Awards Wednesday night was met with whoops and cheers by the large contingent of Whitman College fans in attendance.
Ferenz, after all, led the Missionary women’s basketball team on a run through the NCAA Division III national tournament all the way to the championship game, falling just short of the national title.
And for the first time, Whitman hosted two rounds of the national tournament.
“I want to thank so many people,” Ferenz said as the cheering subsided. “We got to bring the national tournament to Sherwood Center this year! It was so cool to see so many community members come out.
“I hope you had fun — we did!”
The Missionaries’ fun was just beginning at the 38th annual Blue Mountain Youth Recognition Evening at Baker Boyer Bank.
Following Ferenz winning Coach, Whitman swimmer Karl Mering was named Male Athlete of the Year, women’s basketball star Heather Johns won Female Athlete as well as Scholar-Athlete, and the Missionary women’s basketball squad took Team of the Year honors.
Ferenz coached the Whitman women’s basketball team to its first ever Division III Elite 8 finish in 2013, and received the 2013 Blue Mountain Coach of the Year award.
She took it one step farther this year.
“We play in an amazing conference,” Ferenz said. “For our players to compete (in the Northwest Conference), they have to play and train at a really high level. The last two years, things have just come together. We’ve stayed healthy, had great team cohesion, and they embraced the opportunity. Our kids played at a high level for a sustained period of time. It’s hard to win 30-something games.”
Ferenz recognizes there are many factors that have contributed to both her and the Missionaries’ success.
“I would like to say it’s all me or it’s one thing or whatever, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s a combination of things. The college understands the kind of experience our student-athletes want, both athletically and academically. We’ve got the right kids that are taking advantage of their opportunities. I feel very blessed. The support for coaching, the facilities, and the program has grown every year I’ve been here.”
And those standing-room-only crowds at Sherwood Center in the first two rounds of the national tournament?
“We are very honored,” Ferenz said. “In the last couple of years, the support from the Walla Walla community has just grown. Our student-athletes have worked hard and sacrificed a lot. To be appreciated outside the college is just so cool. It just makes me appreciate Walla Walla more. Hopefully, we’ll keep them coming. We don’t plan on backing off.”
And the recent success helps breed success.
“It helps recruiting,” Ferenz said. “We’ve had more interest in our program. Everybody wants to be a part of something that is trying to be the best at what they are. Whitman is a high-level academic school, so we are going to get great students. And now we are getting those athletes that want to be challenged both ways. Hopefully, we just keep building.”
Johns is the epitome of the student-athlete Ferenz mentioned, carrying a 3.9 GPA in pre-med courses, while earning NWC Player of the Year and leading the conference in scoring. She also earned national honors while leading the Missionaries on their historic run.
“It always feels good to be recognized,” Johns said. “I was a little shocked because I didn’t think they would give me back-to-back ones. I thought that they would have recognized another student-athlete. I guess it feels pretty good for them to be able to give me both.”
To win the academic honor as well as athletic meant a lot to Johns.
“(It) shows how hard I’ve worked in both areas of my life,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. It keeps me busy. Especially in season. You have labs that go ’til 4 and then practice that starts at 4:30 and goes until 7 or 8. You get home and you’re exhausted. It takes a lot to buckle down and do homework.
“I’ve always taken a lot of pride in being a great student. Of course, I work really hard in basketball and I’m going to put all my effort into that because that’s really important to me. But in the end, I’m at a Division III for a reason and that’s so I can focus on (my) education too.
And it doesn’t come easy on either front.
“I took every opportunity I could last summer to work on my game and get better and build that confidence that I needed,” Johns said. “A lot of that had to do with our run to the Elite 8 last year. (I) had a lot of motivation to get back there. That motivated me every day in the summer to get better.”
It paid off this season, with Whitman winning the NWC with a 16-0 record, and going 25-0 in the regular season before the postseason run.
“I felt a little more comfortable,” Johns said of the season. “I knew my role. I knew my teammates and we all just clicked better together. That helped me, too.”
And she was happy the team earnd its recognition.
“That’s always awesome,” Johns said. “I wasn’t the only one that had a huge year. Just about every starter on our team had an amazing year. I got recognized. Sarah (Anderegg) got recognized. To see that transfer to the team play, I think it really shows how much our program is based on the team.
“I always want to make sure that my team knows they’re the reason we made it far.”
Anderegg, another Whitman all-NWC first-teamer, was a finalist for Female Athlete. She reflected on the last two years, and the trophy haul the Missionaries enjoyed Wednesday.
“It’s nice to see those (trophies) and reflect on all that we’ve accomplished,” Anderegg said. “Not just our record and making Whitman College history, but the time we spent together.
“Never in my freshman year would have I expected to have played in a national championship game and everything else we did.”
Missionary athletic director Dean Snider accepted Mering’s award for Male Athlete, as Mering couldn’t attend.
“He is a remarkable young man,” Snider said. “He seems to excel at everything he does. He is an outstanding athlete. We’re proud to be associated with him.”
Mering won the national championship in the 100 butterfly, and was third in the 200 butterfly.
Snyder stressed the dedication that Mering put into swimming in order to reach his level of excellence.
“How do you get up at 5 a.m. and swim tirelessly and endlessly when you are tired and there’s no end,” Snider asked. “It (swimming) is a remarkable sport. The people that swimming breeds are remarkable people.”
He also commented on the women’s basketball season.
“Coach Ferenz is a remarkable coach,” Snider said. “That team runs an amazing amount of stuff and they execute all their sets so very well. These kids know what they are doing and how to do it. It’s an amazing thing to watch.”
And a full Sherwood Center during the first two rounds of the national tournament didn’t go unnoticed by the AD.
“It was surreal,” Snider said of the support. “It was a remarkable experience. It made me proud to be a member of this community. When there is something special going on, this community knows and wants to be there and be a part of it. We are pleased with the direction of our programs and the support we are getting from our college and our alumni.”