WALLA WALLA, Wash. - Start with seven seasoned seniors and mix in plenty of size and strength. Using that as his primary recipe for success, Skip Molitor is ready to launch his tenth season as the men's basketball coach at Whitman College.
The NCAA Div. III Missionaries, fielding a roster with eight players ranging in height from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-11, hit the hardwoods for the first time this season on Friday, Nov. 21, when they host Portland's Concordia University, an NAIA Div. II school.
"What is striking about our roster is the combination of size and experience," Molitor says. "The last time we had this many seniors we were involved in post-season play. There will be many times when our smallest player on the floor is 6-foot-2. Our big line-up will be comparable to the Lewis & Clark team from a few years ago that was a national title contender."
Seniors Kyle Dalvit and Casey Nelson are Whitman's tallest and strongest players this season. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Dalvit is poised to elevate his numbers from a year ago, when he averaged 7.5 points and 5.7 rebounds. The same is true for the Nelson, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound power forward who averaged 7.8 points and 4.3 boards.
"We certainly hope that Kyle's height and Casey's strength will pose some problems down around the basket for a lot of opponents," Molitor says.
"Kyle has improved significantly from a year ago," Molitor adds. "He spent five weeks last summer at Gonzaga, helping with their basketball camps and playing against Gonzaga's big men in pick-up games. Kyle's' confidence in his game has grown tremendously."
Dalvit, who played his first two collegiate seasons at Edmonds Community College and Western Washington University, was a dominant force for the Missionaries at times last season. He scored a season-high 16 points, hitting all seven of his shots from the floor, and grabbed seven rebounds in a victory over Montana State-Northern. He blitzed Puget Sound for 15 points and 13 boards, and doubled up on Lewis & Clark with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Dalvit, who started all 25 of Whitman's games last year, shot 47 percent from the floor for the season. He also blocked 22 shots, five of them in one game.
"We also expect a more consistent season from Casey Nelson," Molitor says. "He's prepared to play, both physically and mentally, to a much greater extent than he was last season."
Nelson played his first two seasons at Oregon's Mt. Hood Community College and then sat our a year before coming to Whitman. Highlights in his first campaign as a Missionary included a 21-point, nine-rebound effort against Pacific. He added 19 points, nine boards, four assists and two blocks against Montana State-Northern.
For the season, Nelson shot a team-high 55 percent from the floor.
"Our plan from an offensive standpoint is to get the ball inside, where Dalvit and Nelson are definite scoring threats," Molitor says. "We want to establish an inside-outside game, where our big men have the option of taking high-percentage shots or, if the defense collapses, kicking the ball back outside to our perimeter shooters."
One of Whitman's outside threats is senior Greg Caldwell, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard. After playing his first two seasons at Olympic Community College in Bremerton, Caldwell averaged 8.7 points per game and hit 35.3 percent (48 of 136) of his 3-point attempts last winter for the Missionaries.
"Greg is another player who has had a year to get familiar with our system," Molitor says. "He certainly has the potential to have a number of big scoring nights."
Caldwell's biggest night last winter came against Lewis & Clark, when he nailed eight of ten 3-point shots and finished with 30 points and eight rebounds. He combined 21 points and five rebounds against Linfield.
One of Whitman's more versatile players is Jake Pounds, a 6-foot-5 senior who Molitor plans to swing between the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. "Jake can shoot, pass and rebound, and he makes good decisions," Molitor says. "This year we'll probably use his skills at the No. 3 spot more than we have in the past."
Playing 19 minutes a game last season, Pounds averaged 5.4 points and 3.8 rebounds. He made 34.2 percent (25 of 71) of his 3-point attempts. His best game was 11 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over George Fox.
The senior quartet of Dalvit, Nelson, Pounds and Caldwell will take the floor Many times with sophomore Greg Ricker, a quick 6-foot-2 point guard. "Using that line-up will put a real premium on Ricker's ability to run the club and handle the defensive pressure," Molitor says. "We think Ricker is up to the challenge. He started last year as a freshman, and he has as much quickness and speed as anyone we've had at that position. Greg is an exciting, end-to-end player."
Ricker averaged 6.1 points, 4.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds in his rookie season. He twice scored 14 points in a game and handed out a season-high 11 assists in one contest.
"Balanced scoring will be one of the keys for us," Molitor says. "This could one of those seasons when we have eight guys averaging between eight and 14 points a night. Our hope is for the same kind of rebounding balance. Kyle, Casey and Jake are all very capable of averaging more than five rebounds a game."
Other seniors for the Missionaries are 6-foot-1 guard Cale Will; 6-foot-5 post Matt Airy, and 5-foot-11 guard Rich Harris.
Will, slowed by a leg injury to start last season, averaged just nine minutes and 2.3 points. "Two years ago, Cale shot 43 percent from 3-point and had a 21-point game in one of our victories," Molitor says. "Last year, he was hurt to start the season and just never got into rhythm. It's great to have him healthy again, and we need to get him back on track."
Airy, a fifth-year senior, saw limited minutes last season after missing the previous year because of injury. "Matt has probably had the most surprisingly strong preseason of anyone on our roster," Molitor says. "He's positioned himself to be a contributor. He's another one of our big guys who can shoot the ball from the outside."
Harris, also a fifth-year senior, continues to battle health problems. He scored 31 points in three games to start last season before an irregular heartbeat sidelined him. Back problems have placed this season in jeopardy. "With different treatments and some good luck, there's still a chance Rich can play some good minutes for us this winter," Molitor says.
Mike Peterson, a 5-foot-11 junior, has emerged as Ricker's backup at point guard. "Mike has been outstanding in the fall workouts," Molitor says. "He'll be on the floor when Ricker isn't, and there will be times when they both will be out there. Mike has the potential to be a significant catalyst for us. He's at the top of the list of our players who makes his teammates better."
Averaging nine minutes a game last season, Peterson enjoyed one of his longest outings against George Fox, combining seven points with five rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes.
Adding more size to the Whitman roster are senior Nick Parker, a 6-foot-6 forward who has junior eligibility, and sophomore Erik Kofler, a 6-foot-8 post. Both players saw limited court time last season, averaging about seven minutes a game.
"Nick is another one of our big men who has good athletic ability and a good outside shot," Molitor says. "As one of our returning players, we expect him to make a larger contribution this season."
As a freshman last season, Kofler showcased his offensive talents in a game against George Fox, hitting four of five shots from the floor and scoring 10 points in just nine minutes of action.
"Erik is visibly stronger this season," Molitor says. "He's already had some impressive offensive preseason scrimmages.
Rounding out the Missionary roster this winter are three newcomers: Kyle Born, a 6-foot-5 freshman forward from Stanwood (Wash.) High School; Ian Warner, a 5-foot-8 freshman guard from Woodinville (Wash.) High School; and Mike Moss, a 5-foot-11 sophomore guard playing his first season of collegiate basketball. Moss played his high school ball at Santa Fee (N.M.) Prep.
Whitman's early non-conference slate of games will include a number of tough opponents. Concordia, an NAIA Div. II school and the opening night foe, won the Cascade Conference last season. The Missionaries hit the road for the first time in late November, playing a tournament hosted by Carroll College, a perennial NAIA Div. I power and the defending Frontier Conference champ.
Whitman hosts its annual Wildhorse Resort Classic in early December, playing two more NAIA schools, Western Baptist (Div. II) and University of Great Falls (Div. I). The Missionaries face their sternest test, however, when they battle Azusa Pacific in a tournament to be played at Honolulu's Chaminade University. Azusa starts the season ranked No. 2 nationally in NAIA Div. I.
Whitman is home to start the Northwest Conference season, playing Willamette and Lewis & Clark on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 9-10.
In a preseason coaches poll, Whitworth was picked to win a second straight NWC title. But Molitor says Lewis & Clark, Puget Sound and Pacific are just as likely to content for this year's conference crown.
"Our conference is always strong, competitive and well balanced, but the parity this winter could be greater than it has ever been," Molitor says.
"None of the top four teams from last year will be quite as strong this season, and all five of the teams that finished below them will be stronger. It's going to make for an exciting conference season. Any team will have the ability to beat any other team on any given night."