WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Despite the loss of three quality starters, optimism abounds as Skip Molitor prepares for his ninth season as the men's basketball coach at Whitman College.
"We bounced back and had a good competitive season a year ago, and much of the credit for that turnaround goes to the three seniors who graduated -- Ben Fuller, Rob Bell and Kevin Justice," Molitor says. "We're going to miss those three, but we've still got a solid nucleus of returning veterans and a very good recruiting class. This is very likely going to be one of the strongest teams Whitman has had in quite awhile."
Depth and flexibility will be Missionary assets this winter, Molitor says. "This is the most depth we've had since I've been here, which translates into a lot of versatility. We can put a big, strong line-up on the floor, or we can go with a smaller, quicker, pressure-type line-up. We can put perimeter shooters on the floor, or we can go with guys who can do the job scoring inside the paint."
Senior co-captains Mark Bouma and Scott Erickson, a pair of proven competitors, will lead the Missionaries this season, which begins Nov. 22-24 with three games at the Walla Walla College Hoop Classic.
Slowed by injuries early in the season, the 6-foot-4 Bouma (Conrad, Mont. / Conrad HS) later shared time with Justice at the small forward spot, starting 11 of 24 games. He shot a team-high 57 percent from the floor, averaging 8.3 points and 4.6 points. As a sophomore starter, Bouma averaged 9.3 points and 6.1 boards.
"Mark was banged up a little bit, and you could say he had somewhat quiet junior season," Molitor says. "But he's got such a huge heart and plays with incredible intensity. He's had a lot games with double-digit points and rebounds. He always thinks team first, but he's going to have an outstanding senior season."
Erickson (Boise, Idaho / Boise HS), a 5-foot-10 sparkplug, joined the Missionaries last winter after two seasons at Big Bend Community College. Making the adjustment on the fly, Erickson led the Northwest Conference in 23-point shooting, canning 66 of 162 attempts, or 41 percent of his long-range bombs.
"It's going to fun watching Scott shoot the ball this season," Molitor says. "He's had a full year to adjust to this level, so we're expecting a very consistent, productive year from Scott. Plus, all the good things you say about Mark Bouma, you can say about Scott. He plays extremely hard and loves to win."
Whitman stock of returning veterans also includes two talented junior guards, 6-foot Bryan Erlebach and 5-foot-11 Rich Harris.
Erlebach, a graduate of Walla Walla High School, has been a part-time starter in each of his first two seasons. Last winter, he averaged 7.8 points, 4.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds. He also shot 48 percent from the floor. "Bryan had the second-best assist average in the conference last year," Molitor says. "He also had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the league. It's a pleasure to watch him pass the ball. He made a significant improvement from his freshman to sophomore seasons, and we have every reason to believe he'll raise his level of play again this season."
Harris (San Jose, Calif. / Bellarmine Prep- San Jose), sidelined by an irregular heartbeat two seasons ago, returned to play 12 games last winter, seven of them as a starter. He averaged 5.8 points and nearly two rebounds.
"Because of his health problems, a lot of people have forgotten about Rich and some of the numbers he put on the board as a freshman," Molitor says. "You have to remember he shot 45 percent from the 3-point line and 80 percent from the free throw line in his one healthy season. He's also an outstanding defensive player."
Thus far in preseason workouts, Harris seems to have his heart condition under control. "All signs point to a healthy season for Rich, which would be great to see for his sake," Molitor says. "Rich is another one of those players who inject a lot character and work ethic into a team."
The players recruited to replace last year's trio of graduated seniors are three junior college transfers: Kyle Dalvit, an athletic 6-foot-11, 240-pound post player; Casey Nelson, a rugged 6-foot-5, 260-pound post; and Greg Caldwell, a sharp-shooting 6-foot-4 guard.
Dalvit, who played his prep ball at Bellingham's Sehome High School, spent his first collegiate season at Western Washington University, and his second at Edmonds Community College. At Edmonds, Dalvit was a back-up to a 6-foot-9 teammate who earned first-team all-league honors.
"Kyle doesn't have a lot of fancy statistics to show at this point, but there's no question that he's going to be an exciting player at Whitman," Molitor says. "He moves and runs remarkably well for a player his size. I don't think a double-double in points and rebounds will be a rarity for Kyle, although he doesn't need to score a lot of points to impact a game. He's a definite presence at the defensive end."
Nelson also gives the Missionaries more of a physical presence in the post area. "Casey is extremely strong," Molitor says. "He also has great hands and a nice shooting touch down on the block. Plus, he's a very good passer. He hits the cutters inside and kicks the ball back outside to the 3-point line."
Nelson, who played high school ball in Ketchikan, Alaska, finished his second season at Portland's Mt. Hood Community College in impressive fashion. He posted a double-double in points and rebounds in eight of his last 10 games, finishing as his team's leading rebounder and with a double-digit scoring average.
Caldwell, a graduate of Port Townsend (Wash.) High School, excelled as a scorer at Bremerton's Olympic Community College. As a sophomore, he averaged 20 points per game, many of those points coming from beyond the 3-point stripe. "Greg has exceptional range as an outside shooter," Molitor says. "He also puts the ball on the floor and scores surprisingly well off the dribble."
Two juniors likely to see significant time off the bench are juniors Jake Pounds (Spokane, Wash. / Ferris HS), a 6-foot-5 forward, and Cale Will (Conrad, Mont. / Conrad HS), a 6-foot-1 guard.
"Jake scored in double figures on more than one occasion for us last year," Molitor says. "He's very capable of giving us an offensive boost off the bench, primarily with his outside shooting. He's also gotten a lot stronger and can hold his own now on the boards and at the defensive end."
Will was instrumental in one of Whitman's non-conference wins last December. With two starters unavailable, Will hit six of eight 3-point shots in scoring a game-high 21 points against Pacific Union. He shot 43 percent from the 3-point line on the season.
"Cale has been slowed by a calf injury this fall, and we're just now getting him back into the mix," Molitor says. "We're glad to have him back."
Other returning reserves are senior Matt Airy (Bellevue, Wash. / Bellevue HS) and sophomores Nick Parker (Malta, Mont. / Malta HS) and Mike Peterson (Redondo Beach, Calif. / South HS-Torrance, Calif.).
Airy, a 6-foot-5 senior post, is back after missing last season with a knee injury. "Matt plays in the post, but he creates problems for opposing defenses in that he shoots well from the outside," Molitor says.
Parker, a 6-foot-6 forward, and Peterson, a 5-foot-11 point guard, showed potential in playing limited minutes last season. "Nick is athletic and runs the floor well, and he gives us another shooting threat off the bench," Molitor says. "Mike brings an all-around floor game to the point guard spot, and I've always liked his hustle."
The three freshman on this year's roster are Greg Ricker, a 6-foot-2 point guard from Seattle Prep; Erik Kofler, a 6-foot-8 post from Walla Walla High School; and Jeff Grant, a 6-foot-5 forward from Seattle's Roosevelt High School.
Ricker is the player most likely to make an immediate impact. "Greg was one of the leaders the past few years on a very strong Seattle Prep team," Molitor says. "He was one of their senior captains last season. He is a true point guard, and he's exceptionally quick with the basketball, up and down the floor. He has the potential to be one of the premier floor leaders in this conference. He's also as good of a defender as we have on our team right now."
Kofler also has the potential to make major contributions, Molitor says. "Erik is committed at this point to making himself physically stronger. That will allow his offensive talents to shine more consistently at this level. He also has nose for the ball around the defensive boards, and he shows promise as a shot blocker."
Grant is another welcome addition to the team, Molitor says. "Jeff is the kind of player every coach loves to have. He's a very hard worker. He reminds me a lot of Bouma in that he shoots a high percentage, comes up with a lot of loose ball, and just finds ways to help his team win."
Whitman finished last season with a 6-10 NWC record, just one game out of a tie for fifth place. "We think we have a shot of placing significantly higher this year, but it won't be easy. This is one of the toughest conferences in the country. Over the past decade, our teams are 19-0 in the opening round of the NAIA and NCAA playoffs."
The Missionaries play their first four games on the road, including a Nov. 26 at NCAA Div. I Utah State. Whitman plays its first home games in hosting its annual Wildhorse Resort Classic Dec. 6-7.
Whitman also opens its NWC slate at home when George Fox and Pacific visit Sherwood Center on Jan. 3-4.