WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- A trio of talented and court-savvy senior captains, backed by a solid supporting cast, give Skip Molitor reason for optimism as he prepares his Whitman College Missionaries for the 2001-02 basketball season.
"We're very excited about the kind of senior leadership we have this year," Molitor said. "We have three guys in Rob Bell, Kevin Justice and Ben Fuller who are more than just very good players. They are excellent leaders who can set the tone for everyone else."
At the center of the Missionary hopes, both literally and figuratively, is the imposing presence of 6-foot-8, 240-pound Rob Bell, who shot 51 percent from the floor while averaging 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds during his junior campaign.
Bell (San Jose, Calif. / Bellarmine Prep) also served as the hub on defense, blocking 18 shots in 24 games a year ago, helping Whitman lead the Northwest Conference in field goal percentage defense for a second straight season.
"It isn't every year we're going to have a player of Rob's size and physical ability who also happens to be a Rhodes Scholarship applicant," Molitor said. "Rob is obviously very intelligent and it shows in the way he plays the game."
After a freshman season slowed by a foot injury, Bell has steadily improved his play, Molitor said. "It isn't uncommon for big players to grow into themselves and be much better players as seniors in college than they were as seniors in high school. Rob illustrates that point well. He's done a very solid job for us the past two seasons, but we think he's ready to move into the upper echelon of the premier players in our conference."
Justice (Boise, Idaho / Capital HS), a versatile 6-foot-2 wing, missed all of last season while rehabilitating a severe knee injury suffered in January of 2000. That injury cut short a junior season in which Justice was averaging 11.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.44 assists through 14 games.
"Kevin was having a great season when the injury happened," Molitor said. "He was shooting one of the highest percentages on the team, and he was our best defender from a mental standpoint. He's mentally tough and brings a good, strong defensive mentality to the floor every night."
As Whitman's third senior captain, Fuller (Centralia, Wash. / Centralia HS, Centralia CC) is a 6-foot-3 guard who also contributes in a variety of ways. Fuller scored 12.6 points per game last winter, hitting 81 percent of his free throws and 42 percent of his 3-point attempts, while averaging 4.8 rebounds, 3.45 assists and 2.2 steals.
"Ben is an outstanding athlete," Molitor said. "He's the guy on our club who is most capable of going out and having some spectacular nights at both ends of the floor."
Fuller played his first two collegiate seasons at Centralia (Wash.) Community College, although those two years were split by a two-year mission he did for his church. He also attended Brigham Young University for one year before enrolling at Whitman.
"This is the first time since high school that Ben will have the opportunity to play back-to-back basketball seasons," Molitor said. "We think we'll see some definite dividends from that."
Mark Bouma (Conrad, Mont. / Conrad HS), 6-foot-4 junior forward, leads the Missionary supporting cast. He started all but one game last season, averaging 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds. Bouma had four double-doubles on the season, including a 23-point, 12-rebound night against one NWC opponent. He also had nine points and nine rebounds in two other games.
"Mark is a treat to watch play," Molitor said. "He's one of our mid-size guys who can do a lot of things. He's so tough and hard-nosed in the way he plays the game, and that makes him a good defender as well."
Rich Harris and Bryan Erlebach are two young players who return to give the Missionaries solid depth at the guard position.
At 5-foot-11, Harris (San Jose, Calif. / Bellarmine Prep) is strong, quick and determined to bounce back from an irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for nearly all of last season. Two years ago as a freshman, Harris started 11 games and averaged 5.1 points per game, shooting 80 percent from the free throw line and 45 percent from the 3-point stripe. Last season, he played in just four games, averaging nine points per game.
"Right now, Rich is on a week-to-week basis as to how much he will get to play, but there is good reason to be optimistic," Molitor said. "He's played a lot of basketball in the offseason and learned how to monitor his heart situation. The doctors are optimistic, and so is Rich, that he will be able to play a lot of minutes this season."
Harris has the potential to be a "special player in this league," Molitor predicted. "He shot over 40 percent from the 3-point line as a freshman, and we're talking about someone who can drive and blow past a lot of people. Plus, he's an outstanding defender and has a great work ethic."
With Harris ailing last year, the 6-foot Erlebach (Walla Walla, Wash. / Walla Walla HS) made a quick transition to the collegiate game during his freshman campaign. Like Harris the season before, Erlebach started 11 games and led the Missionaries in assists at 3.51 per game while averaging 5.5 points.
Erlebach gives Whitman an "explosiveness on the floor that is exciting," Molitor said. "Bryan has excellent north and south quickness as well as lateral quickness. When he turns on the jets, there aren't many players in the conference who can stay with him."
Erlebach also has the requisite confidence and passing skills to play the point guard spot, Molitor said. "Bryan has an air of confidence on the court that is difficult to teach. When the pressure is on, he tends to elevate his game. He started at Montana last December as a freshman, and he didn't back down from that at all. He made plays and gave a very credible performance on the road at a Division I school."
This season, Erlebach will likely share the point guard duties with junior Scott Erickson (Boise, Idaho / Boise HS, Big Bend CC), the key addition to this winter's Missionary roster. The 5-foot-10 Erickson played his first two collegiate seasons at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash., where he emerged as one of the top point guards in a 32-school conference.
As a sophomore at Big Bend, Erickson averaged 13.4 points, hitting 49 percent of his 3-point attempts, while handing out 5.3 assists per game. He was No. 2 in total 3-point baskets (85) and No. 7 in assists.
"Scott has a classic point guard mentality in terms of taking care of the ball and getting the ball to the right people within the offense," Molitor said. "He also has the ability to really hurt the opposition from the 3-point line."
The list of returning players destined for greater roles includes sophomores Jake Pounds (Spokane, Wash. / Ferris HS), a 6-foot-6 forward, and Cale Will (Conrad, Mont. / Conrad HS), a 6-foot-1 guard.
"Jake played a lot of minutes, relatively speaking, as a freshman and he made a lot of big shots, especially during the first half of the season," Molitor said. "He showed good court sense at both ends of the floor. He shoots and passes the ball well. He's already a skilled finesse player, and he's continued to work on getting stronger and playing a more physical game."
Will saw less time during his freshman season, averaging about five minutes in 13 games (Pounds averaged 10 minutes in 22 games). That could change this season, Molitor said. "Cale has probably made more improvement during the offseason than anyone else in our program. He is stronger, more confident, and has really adjusted to basketball at this level. He will likely raise some eyebrows this season. People will wonder where this guy came from."
Other key recruits this season are first-year sophomore Nick Parker (Malta, Mont. / Malta HS), a 6-foot-6 forward, and freshman Mike Peterson (Redondo Beach, Calif. / South HS), a 5-foot-11 point guard.
After earning all-league honors in high school, Parker spent his freshman year at Gonzaga University, where his efforts to make the Bulldog roster failed to pan out. "Nick is very quick and very athletic," Molitor said. "He can shoot the ball from the outside, but he also has the quickness to get to the basket. He loves the game of basketball and he works very hard at it. He worked basketball camps all summer. He has a bright future in our program."
Peterson adds more depth to Whitman's point guard position. At South High School in Torrance, Calif., Peterson led his team to a league championship. He averaged 6.4 points per game while topping the league in the all-important assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1 to 1.2).
"Our guys already enjoy playing with Mike on the floor," Molitor said. "He has good floor sense, he gets the ball to the right people, and he has good leadership skills. He's also a very competitive kid, someone who more than held his own at one of California's larger high schools."
Other players on the roster are juniors Matt Airy (Bellevue, Wash. / Bellevue HS), a 6-foot-5 post player, and Nolan Brewer (Caldwell, Idaho / New Plymouth HS), a 6-foot-1 guard. Airy will miss the season because of a knee injury suffered last summer. A first-year walk-on, Brewer will play the first few months before leaving at the semester break to study overseas.
Whitman begins its season this Saturday, Nov. 10, when its hosts an Australian Pro Hoops team in a 7 p.m. exhibition at Sherwood Center. The season begins in earnest when the Missionaries travel to St. Louis, Mo., to play Nov. 16-17 in Washington University's Lopata Classic.
After a Nov. 27 road game at Eastern Oregon University, Whitman hosts its annual Wildhorse Resort Classic from Nov. 29 through Dec. 1.
The Missionaries play their only Northwest Conference game of the calendar year on Saturday, Dec. 8, at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.
After four more non-conference games in December, including two in the San Francisco Bay area, Whitman returns to NWC play in early January.
Molitor rates Lewis & Clark College as a clear favorite to regain its NWC title from two years ago. The Pioneers placed second last season, a game behind Linfield, but they return All-NWC First-Team selection Scott Davis and Second-Team picks John Mietus and Colin Oriard.
"Lewis & Clark is a very legitimate contender for a national title this season," Molitor said. "They have been in the national tournament seven of the last eight years, and they are as strong now as they've ever been."
Pacific Lutheran, Whitworth and Linfield should also field strong squads within the conference, Molitor said. Whitman's pre-season goal, he added, is to finish in the top three, thereby qualifying for the NWC's post-season playoffs.
"Other than Lewis & Clark, the conference is wide open," Molitor said. "There honestly isn't much difference between the teams that place eighth and ninth and those that finish second and third."
Whitman's keys to doing well in the NWC are staying healthy, building confidence with non-conference victories, and jelling as a team, Molitor said. "If we can do those things, we have as much chance to unseat Lewis & Clark as anyone else in our conference."
The Missionaries slipped to the bottom of the NWC standings in each of the past two seasons, after finishing in the middle of the pack the two years prior to that. "We've hit on tough times for a couple of years, but the injury bug is partly to blame for that," Molitor said. "I really don't think our talent level fell off that much, if any, the past two years. This is such a tough conference that it's not enough to hit on most cylinders. You have to hit on all cylinders most of the time to do well."
Scoring balance and overall depth will be two Missionary strengths this season, Molitor said. "We have several players who are more than capable of scoring in double figures on any given night. That balance will include an ability to use our outside shooting as more of a weapon. We should be much more prolific from the 3-point line than we have been in the past."
This year's Missionaries are anxious to get started, Molitor said. "As a team, we think we have a real opportunity to make some significant strides within the Northwest Conference."