WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- As Michelle Ferenz embarks on her second season as head of the women's basketball program at Whitman College, the nature of her team has changed dramatically. The four seniors who carried an extra heavy load last winter are gone, replaced by a handful of first-year players fresh from successful high school careers.
"We're looking at two totally different teams," Ferenz says. "We're much younger and less experienced than a year ago, but we're also much deeper. We're going to have more flexibility in terms of what we do on the floor."
Stephanie Lien, a 5-foot-10 forward, is the lone senior on this year's squad. The only juniors are Denise Kirstein, a 5-foot-8 wing, and Mandee Romero, a 5-foot-10 forward, both of whom are off to a late start after playing this fall for the Whitman volleyball team.
The two promising sophomores on the roster are Anna Stephenson, an agile 5-foot-10 post, and Lindsey Gehrig, a 5-foot-7 shooting guard.
That means the rest of the varsity spots are filled with six first-year players. One of those six will swing between Whitman's varsity and junior varsity, but the remaining five will "play a bunch of minutes for us this winter," Ferenz says. "Our first-year class is a good one. They just need to stay focused on getting better and adjusting to the game at this level. They have the potential to be a very good group."
For now, Ferenz plans to lean on her core group of older players and work the first-year players into different combinations. "It's hard to know what's going to work and what isn't," she says. "Denise, Mandee and Karna (Williams) missed the first three weeks of practice because of volleyball, so we haven't had the whole group together very long."
Whitman begins its season Friday and Saturday, Nov. 22-23, with a pair of tournament games at Central Washington University. The Missionaries will play a total nine non-conference games before the new year dawns, and it may take that long before Ferenz settles on a starting unit. The Northwest Conference season begins on the weekend of Jan. 3-4.
Lien (Battle Ground, Wash. / Battle Ground HS), the only Missionary senior, played most of last season at one of the wing spots, averaging 4.2 points in 19 minutes a game. "Stephanie is moving inside to our four spot, and she's adjusting well," Ferenz says. "She's a very steady, very consistent player, and she's one of our more versatile players. She can shoot from the outside, but she also has some nice back-to-the-basket moves."
Kirstein (Spokane, Wash. / Ferris HS), the only returning starter, also played a wing spot last season, averaging 5.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. Because of her athleticism and strength, the 5-foot-8 junior also has the versatility to swing between the perimeter and the paint. "Denise is one of the best all-around athletes at Whitman, Ferenz says.
The only true post players on the roster are Stephenson and Leyla Khastou, the tallest of the first-year players at an even 6-feet.
Stephenson (Chico, Calif. / Chico HS) showed plenty of promise in her first collegiate season last fall, shooting 53 percent from the floor while averaging 4.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19 minutes a game. "Anna might be a little undersized as a post player, but she's much stronger than she was a year ago," Ferenz says. "And the success she has doesn't come from banging with people, it comes from moving around them. Her main asset is her quickness. She has improved a great deal in the past year."
Khastou, on the other hand, has the size to exert a physical presence in the post area. She earned second-team all-league honors last winter at Seattle's Roosevelt High, which romped to a 22-1 regular season record en route to a state tournament appearance.
The other players on the Whitman roster with collegiate experience are Romero (Grandview, Wash. / Grandview HS), who played two seasons at Walla Walla Community College, and Gehrig (Bellevue, Wash. / Bellevue HS).
As a freshman last season, Gehrig averaged 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game. "Lindsey is a lot like Anna in that she's raised her level of play from a year ago," Ferenz says.
While Romero is one of the volleyball players off to a late start in basketball, she isn't a newcomer to Whitman. After playing at WWCC, she practiced with the Missionaries last year while taking a red-shirt season. "Having Mandee on the floor will definitely make us a different and a better team," Ferenz says. "She knows how to play and how to contribute. She played for a very good coach and on a very good team at the community college."
The other first-year players on the squad, in addition to Khastou, are:
"Miryia Libbey is probably the best shooter among the freshmen, but all of them are very capable of shooting the ball," Ferenz says. Libbey, who earned Class B All-State honors, led Pateros to a 26-2 season that ended with a three-point loss in the state title game. She scored a game-high 20 points in the championship final.
Ferenz expects Higgins to see plenty of court time this season at point guard. Playing for Air Academy High School, a large public school located at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Higgins averaged about 13 points per game as a senior, earning all-league and all-area honors. "Megan knows how to distribute the ball," Ferenz says. "She's a good athlete with great court vision."
Vertatschitsch, a first-team all-league player at Issaquah, may swing between the point guard and shooting guard roles. "Laura comes from the same program as one of last year's seniors, Kim Evanger, and she plays the game with the same intensity as Kim did," Ferenz says. "Laura is a good athlete and a great competitor. She was one of Issaquah's leading scorers last season, although she tore an ACL in her last game. She's still working her way back from that injury."
Washburn, a left-hander, played the point last season at Mundelein, a 2,000-student high school located on the outskirts of northern Chicago. "Because of what her team needed, Lizzy played out of position last year," Ferenz says. "She has played very well in our practices. She's another very good athlete who obviously has good ball-handling skills."
Washburn, a three-starter and first-team all-league pick, led the Mustangs to a 22-11 season and a regional title last winter. She had eight points and five assists in the regional championship game.
Williams, the sixth freshman on the varsity, will also play on Whitman's 11-player junior varsity. Williams, who made the all-region team in Alaska's Class 3A ranks, helped her team to a fourth-place finish in the state tournament.
"One of our strong points this year will be our depth and versatility," Ferenz says. "Our scoring can come from any combination of players, and it will change from night to night. We probably won't have one player average 14 points a game, as Sunny (Gulberg) did last year."
Gulberg, who earned second-team all-NWC honors, is serving as an assistant coach this season. Gulberg, Whitman's all-time leading 3-point shooter, combined with seniors Evanger, Ashley Wright and Darin Reynaud to average a total of 34 points per game last season. "Those four had to play a ton of minutes last winter, so we're obviously going to miss them," Ferenz says.
"Because we have more depth and quickness this season, we also can do more with our defense," Ferenz adds. "We didn't have much of a transition game last year, either on offense or defense, but that isn't the case now. We can be more flexible all the way around."
Whitman's non-conference schedule is a tough one, Ferenz says. "We start with Central Washington, which won 20 games at the Division II level last year. We also play Lewis-Clark State and Biola, two teams that made the NAIA national tournament, and Eastern Oregon, which won its league title last year. If our young kids can beat a few of these teams, it's going to give them a tremendous confidence boost."
Whitman's only non-conference home games are set for Dec. 6-7 against Lewis-Clark State and Walla Walla College.