WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- With just 10 players on the roster, first-year coach Michelle Ferenz is banking on her four seniors to pull a heavy load as the Whitman College women's basketball team embarks on a new season.
The seniors, all from the Seattle area, are 5-foot-6 guard Sunny Gulberg, 5-foot-11 post player Ashley Wright, and two forwards, 5-foot-10 Kim Evanger and 5-foot-9 Darin Reynaud.
"The leadership shown by the seniors thus far has been excellent," Ferenz said. To help the team, she noted, each player has been ready, willing and able to switch positions, play more than one position, or adopt a different style of play.
Gulberg, for example, has shifted to point guard after two seasons at the shooting guard slot, and while Evanger continues to battle knee problems, she will play in the post as well as on the perimeter.
Similarly, Reynaud is "moving from being a post-up player primarily to becoming more of a face-up player," Ferenz said. "Darin works hard and will make the transition nicely."
Wright, another player who has struggled with injuries, is concentrating on becoming a more "consistent inside scoring threat even though she is a bit undersized," Ferenz said.
The only other returning players on the roster are junior Stephanie Lien, a 5-foot-10 forward-wing, and Denise Kirstein, a 5-foot-8 sophomore wing. Lien is on foreign study during the fall semester and doesn't join the squad until sometime in December. Kirstein is off to a late start after playing fall volleyball for the Missionaries.
Rounding out the roster are four freshmen -- guards Lindsey Gehrig and Eliza Arai, and post players Anna Stephenson and Abby Johnson.
A year ago, with Evanger spending the fall semester on foreign study in Australia, Whitman made a credible start to its season, winning five of its first 11 games. In early January, however, Gulberg left campus on a foreign study trip to Vienna, Austria, and the Missionaries faded down the stretch to records of 7-19 overall and 3-13 in the Northwest Conference.
At the time of her departure, Gulberg (Snohomish, Wash. / Snohomish HS) was averaging 15.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Ferenz is confident that shifting Gulberg to point guard this season will benefit all involved. "Sunny is an excellent scorer, but I've also been very impressed with her passing and defense," Ferenz said. "She will still get her shots, but we will rely on her for much more than her scoring."
Gulberg, who led Whitman in scoring and assists in each of her first two seasons, has the track record to justify her coach's confidence. As a freshman, she scorched Seattle University for 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals, and then schooled George Fox for 27 points, four assists, four rebounds and four steals. There was little surprise when Gulberg capped her first season with all-conference honorable mention recognition.
More multi-faceted games followed during Gulberg's sophomore and junior seasons. Last year, she tied a school record in hitting seven 3-pointers while scoring a career-high 28 points in a victory at the University of La Verne.
Gulberg begins her senior season with 748 career points, well within range of the 1,000-point mark. She also has 230 rebounds, 174 assists, 92 steals and 123 3-point baskets. She needs just 29 treys to break the school record set by 1993 graduate Heather Denker.
Evanger's career numbers aren't as gaudy, but only because she lost many games and much productivity to injury. Despite ongoing knee problems that required surgery early in her sophomore year, Evanger (Issaquah, Wash. / Issaquah HS) has racked up 420 points, 377 rebounds, 86 steals, 77 assists and 29 blocked shots. She averaged a career-high 8.4 rebounds as a junior, and she's led Whitman in rebounding average in each of her three seasons.
Like Gulberg, Evanger has posted some sparkling stat lines over the past three seasons. Last year, she snared a career-high 20 rebounds to go with 12 points, three assists and three blocks against Pacific. She had two other double-doubles, including a 16-point, 13-rebound effort against Lewis & Clark. As a sophomore, Evanger pinned 16 points, 11 rebounds and three steals on Puget Sound. As a freshman, she enjoyed a 21-point, nine-rebound night against Whitworth.
Had it not been for the injuries, there is little doubt that Evanger would be "one of the top returning players in the league this year," Ferenz said. "Kim is a terrific athlete and a very intense competitor."
Wright (Bothell, Wash. / Bothell HS) enjoyed a solid freshman season, starting 24 of 25 games, averaging 7.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. She led the squad in total rebounds with 169 (Evanger had a slightly higher per game average), and she blocked a team-high 11 shots while picking off 23 steals.
Wright's first season featured three double-doubles. She had 18 points and 11 rebounds against Lewis & Clark, 11 points and 11 rebounds against Linfield, and 16 rebounds and 11 points in a victory over King's College.
Wright again played 25 games as sophomore, but with injuries starting to take a toll, she started just 16 games and her minutes per game fell. She finished the season averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds. Last season, Wright played in just six games, none as a starter, averaging 16 minutes a night. She averaged less than four points and three rebounds per outing.
Keeping Evanger and Wright healthy is one of the keys to Whitman's season, Ferenz said. "Both Kim and Ashley are still struggling with injuries, but they have been fully participating in all practices and scrimmages," Ferenz said. "So far, so good, even though I'm sure neither one of them will be 100 percent all of the time. They are managing their pain and taking good care of themselves."
Reynaud (Marysville, Wash. / Lakeside School, Seattle), who ran the Portland Marathon earlier this fall, is obviously healthy and, according to her coach, well motivated for a strong senior season. In Costa Rica last fall on foreign study, she returned to play a limited role in 10 games off bench, averaging 2.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10 minutes a night off the bench.
In a full sophomore season, however, Reynaud played in all 25 games, starting in 15. While averaging 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds, she flashed potential with ten rebounds and nine points against Eastern Oregon University, and eight rebounds, seven points and six assists against Walla Walla College.
Ferenz, who takes over for Lori Napier (last season's interim coach), looks forward to Lien's return in December. Lien (Battle Ground, Wash. / Battleground HS) started all but one of Whitman's 24 games last season and enjoyed some big nights in the process. In a 65-62 overtime victory at Evergreen State, she exploded for a career-high 29 points, hitting 11 of 19 shots from the floor, including three of four from beyond the 3-point arc. On the season, Lien averaged 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds.
Kirstein (Spokane, Wash. / Ferris HS), who averaged 6.9 rebounds and 6.6 points as a freshman, will swing this season between shooting guard and small forward, Ferenz said. Kirstein made in big splash in her first collegiate basketball game last fall, scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against Hope International.
After missing early practices because of volleyball, Kirstein is "still working her way into the flow of the game, but the desire and the intensity have been there since day one," Ferenz said.
Whitman's first-year coach also hopes to get some quality minutes from her four first-year players.
Lindsey Gehrig (Bellevue, Wash. / Bellevue HS) has shown early promise at the guard spot, knocking down four 3-pointers in one preseason scrimmage. Anna Stephenson (Chico, Calif. / Chico HS), a post player, has shown the same potential in the paint. "Anna and Lindsey have been pleasant surprises," Ferenz said. "Anna is very effective in the key and Lindsey is very solid on the perimeter. What they need at this point is the confidence to play at this level."
Eliza Arai (Seattle, Wash. / Franklin HS) and Abby Johnson (Seattle, Wash. / University Prep), the other two freshmen, give the Missionaries more depth at the guard and positions.
Arai has made some "giant strides since her first practice," Ferenz said. "Eliza needs to speed up her game a bit, but she definitely has potential. Abby plays a physical game in the post, and she works very hard."
The Missionaries open their season this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23-24, in a four-team tournament hosted by Idaho's Albertson College. Whitman plays its first home games on Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1, against Evergreen State and Cascade College.
After two more home games in mid-December, the Missionaries trek to Phoenix, Ariz., for a pair of tournament games to close out the calendar year.
Whitman begins its Northwest Conference slate in early January.
Ferenz doesn't necessarily expect to challenge for a league title, but neither is she throwing in the towel. "Once we get Steph (Lien) back in December, we'll be a full strength," she said. "With the exception of one or two teams in our league, we're going to be right in the thick of things."
Ferenz, who came to Whitman after a highly successful high school coaching career, has a pair of assistant coaches this season. One of her assistants is her husband Chris, who also has years of high school coaching experience. Her other assistant coach is Jimmy Hill, a former standout player on the Whitman men's team.