WALLA WALLA, Wash. - Short on size and experience but long on youthful talent and exuberance, the Whitman College women's basketball team tips off a new season later this week on courts far from home.
With a roster featuring five sophomores and four first-year players, the Missionaries head east to play a pair of games in the Colorado College Thanksgiving Invitational, slated for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 28-29.
Now in her third season at the Whitman coaching helm, Michelle Ferenz sees plenty of potential in her young squad. "We might have the youngest team in our conference again this year, but there's a lot about this team I really like," Ferenz says. "We have great chemistry, and we have players who are very basketball smart and savvy. They like to play and they're very excited about the season ahead."
Playing with just one senior last year, Whitman held its own through the first half of the Northwest Conference season, building win-loss records of 5-5 in conference and 8-11 overall. Those records suffered down the stretch, however, as the Missionaries dropped five of its last six NWC games. "We have more experience and more talent this season," Ferenz says. "If we can keep everyone healthy, we have a good chance to improve our records from last year."
Speed and quickness will be strong points for the Missionaries. "We're going to be much quicker and faster than we've been the past few years," Ferenz says. "The plan is to play an up-tempo game. We want to keep the ball moving in the half court, and we want to pressure the ball defensively. To do those things on a consistent basis, we'll need to play a deep rotation, and we think we can do that."
Whitman has just two seniors on its roster, 5-foot-8 wing Denise Kirstein and 5-foot-10 forward Mandee Romero.
Kirstein, a volleyball player who recently earned NWC Player of the Year honors, averaged 5.8 points and a team-high 4.8 rebounds for the Missionaries last season. Kirstein posted one double-double during her junior year, combining 16 points with 10 rebounds and four steals against Pacific. A starter in 61 of 72 games in her first three years, Kirstein begins her final season with career totals of 497 rebounds, 429 points and 127 steals.
"Denise has always done a great job rebounding the ball and playing strong defense," Ferenz says. "This year should be no different. Denise has a tremendous amount of athletic ability. What she wants to do this season is be more consistent at the offensive end of the floor."
Romero, who played her first two seasons at Walla Walla Community College, started 21 games for the Missionaries last winter, averaging 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, and shooting 42.9 percent from the 3-point stripe. Her best statistical outings were 12 points in one game and 10 rebounds in another.
"Mandee obviously can shoot the ball, and she's been playing well in our early scrimmages," Ferenz says. "She missed some time recently with the flu, but overall she came back a little stronger this fall. She did a great job in the weight room over the summer."
Whitman's only two juniors, 5-foot-10 post Anna Stephenson and 5-foot-7 guard Lindsey Gehrig, are on foreign study this semester. Stephenson, who averaged 3.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 17 minutes off the bench last season, may return from New Zealand as early as mid-December. Gehrig, who averaged about six minutes a game last winter as a sophomore, isn't expected back from London until January.
Returning sophomores who played significant minutes last season are 5-foot-6 point guard Megan Higgins, 5-foot-7 shooting guard Laura Vertatschitsch, and 5-foot-9 forward Lizzy Washburn.
Higgins enjoyed the most success in her first year, earning honorable mention all-conference recognition while leading the Missionaries in scoring (10.6 ppg) and assists (3.67 apg). She was second on the squad in 3-point shooting, making 30 of 68 attempts, or 44.1 percent.
Higgins, who started 17 of 24 games, had a number of big offensive nights last season, including a 22-point, eight-rebound effort against Evergreen State. She had 17 points, six assists and four rebounds in a victory over Pacific.
"Megan had a great first season for us," Ferenz says. "She can be as good as she wants to be. She has all the physical talents. What she needs to do is continue to mature as a player. She wants to reduce her number of turnovers this year, and we'll be asking her to do more defensively. With our change in playing style, she'll need to work harder on defense and keeping pressure on the ball."
Vertatschitsch, who started six games and averaged nearly 21 minutes per outing last season, scored 6.7 points a night. She was slowed throughout the year by a bulky knee brace made necessary by a knee injury suffered in her final high school game.
"Laura is so much more healthier and mobile than a year ago," Ferenz says. "She no longer needs the knee brace, and because her knee is stronger, she is in much better shape than a year ago."
Ferenz says Vertatschitsch has played well during fall workouts and is one of her most intelligent, mature players. "Laura has established herself as our best two guard," she adds. "We have some players who are very sound fundamentally, and Laura is at the top of that list. She does everything well."
Washburn, who moves this year from guard to a small forward slot, was hampered early last season by strep throat and tonsillitis. "Lizzy came back this fall in much better shape, and she likes her new role. She was our leading rebounder in our first two scrimmages."
Washburn played in all 24 games last season, averaging 3.4 points and nearly two rebounds in 14 minutes per game.
Two other members of last year's first-year class, Miryia Libbey and Leyla Khastou, have been sidelined by injury, one of them permanently.
Libbey, a 5-foot-9 wing who hit 45.3 percent (48-106) of her 3-point attempts last season, can no longer get medical clearance to play because of a chronic knee problem. Libbey, who averaged 9.7 points, scored a season-high 28 points against Lewis-Clark State, hitting a school-record eight 3-point shots. At one point late in the season Libbey was shooting 50.6 percent from the 3-point line, which ranked her No. 2 nationally in NCAA Div. III. "It's a shame that Miryia's playing career is over," Ferenz says. "She has a lot of talent."
Khastou, a 6-foot post player, will likely miss this entire season after undergoing Achilles tendon surgery. Khastou, who averaged 6.1 and 4.4 rebounds last season, twice came within a single rebound of posting a double-double. She had 19 points, nine rebounds and four steals in a win over Walla Walla College, and 10 points and nine boards in an overtime loss to the University of Great Falls.
Two sophomores new to the squad this season are Cheyenne Cotler, a 6-foot center who played her first season at California's Mendocino Community College, and Martha Hansen, a 5-foot-7 guard who played on the Whitman junior varsity last winter.
"Cheyenne has a good feel for the game, and she's made a quick adjustment to Whitman," Ferenz says. "She averaged about five points and five rebounds at Mendocino. Had she decided to stay there for a second season, she was elected to be a team captain. We feel fortunate that she decided last summer to come to Whitman."
Ferenz has high praise for her four first-year recruits - Sarah Laird, a 5-foot-11 forward from Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Atherton, Calif.; Katie Patneaude, a 5-foot-9 guard from Seattle Preparatory School; Shea Morrissey, a 5-foot-8 guard from St. Mary's High School in Stockton, Calif.; and Sarah Nicholes, a 5-foot-6 guard from Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.
A forward with an outside shooting touch, Laird will start the season in the post position for the Missionaries. "It isn't her natural position, but we're short of post players for now," Ferenz says. "Sarah has some post-up abilities, and she's played well defensively against taller players in the scrimmages we've had so far."
Laird averaged 16 points and nine rebounds in her senior year of high school, earning all-league honors and helping Sacred Heart claim a sectional title.
Patneaude averaged 8.0 points as a senior point guard at Seattle Prep, even though she was slowed by a knee injury suffered late in her junior year. "Katie missed that entire summer and a month of her senior season, rehabbing her knee," Ferenz says. "She still had a good senior year, despite playing with a heavy knee brace. She deserves a lot of credit for helping Seattle Prep place second in state."
Patneaude was a key player for three seasons at Seattle Prep. The team won two league titles and one state title during that span.
Morrissey played her senior high school season at St. Mary's, which rolled to a 33-3 record and California's Division 4 state title. As a junior and sophomore, she was the starting point guard at Rio Vista (Calif.) High School, averaging 18 points per game and earning league MVP honors both years.
Nicholes was a senior team captain at Portland's Jesuit High School, which finished with a 21-3 record, winning a league title and placing second at state.
"The great point about being such a young team is that we will continue to get better," Ferenz says. "Our potential for growth is very high."
After opening its season in the Colorado College tournament, Whitman returns home on Dec. 5-6 to co-host the Wildhorse Resort Classic. The Missionaries play at Walla Walla College on Dec. 9, then host two more non-conference games on Dec. 12-13.
Whitman concludes its non-conference slate by co-hosting another tournament at Spokane's Whitworth College in late December. The NWC season begins Jan. 9-10 when the Missionaries host Willamette and Lewis & Clark.
"Our conference is always tough," Ferenz says. "The top three teams -- Pacific Lutheran, Whitworth and George Fox -- return virtually the same rosters from last year."
After losing five of its last six games, Whitman finished with a 6-10 conference record, good enough for sixth among nine schools. "We think we can win at least that many games this season," Ferenz said. "This group practices and will play with a lot of intensity. The expect to win."