WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Cathy Crosslin, the third-year women's basketball coach at Whitman College, is sifting through a variety of puzzle pieces as she prepares for the season ahead. Those pieces, not necessarily in order of relevance or importance, include:
* Three savvy seniors who missed most or all of last winter's basketball season while studying in Europe and/or resting an injury;
* Three scrappy sophomores who were starters a year ago as freshmen;
* Two adept athletes who list volleyball as their primary sport; and,
* Seven spirited freshmen, three of whom Crosslin has coached for years in the summertime AAU ranks.
While Crosslin has yet to piece together this particular jigsaw puzzle, she likes what she sees so far.
"We are going to be a strong team from top to bottom," she said. "I am de-emphasizing who starts this year. From player one to player 10, and maybe even 12, there isn't a lot of difference. Ideally, we could have 10 players with equal minutes."
Competition during early workouts has been intense yet healthy, Crosslin said. "The team is really competing against itself right now," she said. "Everyone wants to win a spot, but they also want their teammates to do well. This team has been a dream to coach so far. They all want to get better, and they all want to win. All of us are really excited about the season and anxious to play."
With nearly two-thirds of her roster occupied by freshmen and sophomores, Crosslin is assured of fielding a relatively young team. "But young doesn't mean inexperienced," she emphasizes. We may not have a lot of college experience on this team, but we have a lot of basketball experience."
Two of Crosslin's most experienced players are senior co-captains Paula Johnson and Faye Hutchison. Both players saw action in a handful of games last winter before leaving at the Christmas break to spend a semester studying in Spain.
Johnson, an undersized (5-foot-5) but effective rebounder at forward, averaged 4.7 points and 4.5 points in her six games last season. Crosslin expects those numbers to rise during the full season ahead.
"We are working to get Paula to see herself as more of a scoring threat this year," she said. "I expect her points to increase, and her rebounding has always been solid. It is great to have her back."
Leadership is one of the intangibles Johnson also brings to the basketball floor, Crosslin said. "Any coach would be lucky to have a captain like Paula. She is the hardest worker on the team, accepting nothing less than 100 percent. That sets the tone for the rest of the team in both practices and games. She has great rapport with her teammates as well as with me, which is essential for any team captain."
Like Johnson, Hutchison played in only six games last winter, averaging in excess of eight points, three rebounds and two steals per game. At 5-foot-2, Hutchison is a study in non-stop motion, a tenacious defender and a threat from 3-point range.
"Faye gives us a lot at the point guard spot," Crosslin said. "She is a great 3-point shot and she's a pest on defense. She has the respect of the whole team. She provides great leadership, both on and off the floor."
The three returning sophomores who were starters last year are Emily Stewart, Jennette Goldmark and Amity Priore.
At 6-feet-2, Stewart was an instant force in the middle, scoring 12 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game. The team's second-leading scorer, she shot 45.6 percent from the floor.
"Emily has the potential to be one of the best posts in the league by the time she graduates," Crosslin said. "She already runs the floor better than any other post player in the conference. She is so strong, it is almost impossible to move her off the block. Her moves down low have improved greatly over the summer, which I expect will translate into her scoring in double digits almost every game."
Priore, a 5-foot-6 wing who also plays guard, was Whitman's third-leading scorer last year, averaging eight points per night. She also averaged nearly three assists. "Not only does Amity get the ball into the post, she gives it to them where they want it," said Crosslin.
As a freshman, Priore was a consistent scorer and a quiet leader, Crosslin added. "I am trying hard to make her a little louder."
This season, her coach wants Priore to show more assertiveness, in both action and word. "She has a great shot, but we really had to push her to use it last season. My policy is, if you have an open shot, take it. That goes for everyone."
Goldmark, a 5-foot-5 guard, averaged nearly six points a game last year while displaying good ball-handling skills, a flair for leadership, and the versatility to play both guard spots.
"Besides being the fastest player on the team, Jennette is a great floor leader," Crosslin said. "Her greatest strength is her presence on the court. She sees the court very well and has a great sense of where she and her teammates need to be."
Mandy Rockwell, a 5-6 senior guard and all-conference volleyball player, returns for her second year of basketball. She played a pivotal role off the bench last season after the Missionaries were caught short-handed midway through the season. She contributed three points and three rebounds per outing.
"I really admired the way Mandy stepped in last year for us," Crosslin said. "She is such a tremendous athlete, and she should contribute a lot to us this season."
Becca Curd, another 5-6 senior guard, returns to the team this winter after spending last year studying abroad and resting an injured knee. Part of her strength is her versatility. She can play both guard positions or at the wing.
"Becca gives us a nice presence on the floor," Crosslin said. "She has the ability to calm the team and should serve as a nice supportive leader for Faye and Paula."
There are eight newcomers this season, including the seven freshman. Three of those seven, Sunny Gulberg, Kim Evanger and Ashley Wright, have played as summertime AAU teammates in the Seattle area since the age of 12, with Crosslin serving as their coach.
Crosslin's AAU team played as many as 100 games in a year. In three seasons, the group posted an .880 winning percentage and played a big role in helping Crosslin amass a career coaching record of 250-92 in the AAU, high school and college ranks.
Gulberg, a 5-foot-6 guard, averaged 12 points and three assists last year as a senior captain at Snohomish High School. "Sunny is an excellent shooter, particularly when she shoots off the dribble," Crosslin said. "She also has the best ball-handling skills on the team."
A 5-foot-11 post player, Wright is a solid offensive rebounder. She played her prep ball at Bothell High School, which placed sixth in state last year. "Ashley has a great understanding of the game," Crosslin said. "She will make an excellent coach some day, but not before she makes an impact in this league."
The most talented of Crosslin's AAU players, perhaps, is Evanger, a 5-foot-10 forward who averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals during her senior season at Issaquah High School. She earned Player-of-the-Year honors in the Class AAA KingCo Conference, led her team to a league title and trip to state, and was named to the All- East Side first team.
Unfortunately for Whitman basketball fans, Evanger has been slowed by a recent knee injury and could miss the first few weeks of the season.
Crosslin has understandably high expectations for Evanger, who also was valedictorian of her class at Issaquah. "Kim has the potential of doing the kind of things Amanda Bradford did at Whitman," Crosslin said. "She is a good all-around player and will help us on offense, defense and on the boards."
Bradford, a four-year starter, graduated last spring and leaves tremendous shoes to fill. Despite a senior season plagued by injury, Bradford finished her career as the third- leading scorer in the history of women's basketball at Whitman.
"We will definitely miss Amanda," Crosslin said. "She was such an excellent player who also could get a lot out of all of her teammates."
Other freshmen on this year's team include Darin Reynaud, a 5-9 forward who spent the past few months confined by injury to the Whitman volleyball bench. The Female Scholar Athlete of the Year at Seattle's Lakeside High School last year, Reynaud hopes to get healthy in time for the basketball season.
Brianna Halbach, a 5-8 wing player from Tucson, Arizona, is another freshman who could see some immediate playing time, Crosslin said. "Brianna is an awesome surprise. She put in a lot of work over the summer and it really shows."
The eighth newcomer this season is 6-foot junior Barby Ream, who also has all- conference volleyball honors to her credit. "Barby has good skills and good size, and we're excited to have her," Crosslin said. "She has a nice shot with good range. She should be a good addition."
The last two freshman rounding out the roster are Brooke Krekow, a 5-foot-7 wing/forward from Seattle's Bush School, and Mary Wells, a 5-foot-10 post player from Oregon's Independence High School. Krekow and Wells will see most of their playing time on the jayvee team.
Whitman opens its season at home Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, with home games against a pair of non-conference opponents, Walla Walla College and Western Montana University.
The Missionaries also play their first Northwest Conference games at home on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4-5, against Lewis & Clark College and the University of Puget Sound.
During its holiday break, Whitman will spent a week in Nassau, Bahamas, playing three non-conference games as part of the Goombay Shootout. The Missionaries then resume their league season Jan. 8-9 with a pair of games at home.
The Northwest Conference will once again be a tough place to play this season, Crosslin said. Pacific Lutheran, Whitworth and Linfield are among the schools expected to field strong teams.
"We have the potential to shoot for the top half of the conference," Crosslin said. "If the season goes well, we can compete for one of the top spots.