WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The winds of change have swept through Sherwood Center, leaving behind a brand new basketball floor and a fresh set of bleachers. And for the Whitman College men’s basketball team, which has undergone a fundamental make-over after graduating seven players from last year’s squad, the new surroundings seem only fitting.
Now in his 11th year at the Whitman helm, coach Skip Molitor sounds excited about his team’s immediate future. “This should be an exciting year,” Molitor says. “I’m really looking forward to it. The nice thing from my standpoint is that we have a nucleus of guys who will be together for more than this year. We could be real cohesive for a few years to come.”
The Missionaries open the season on the road at Northwest College in Kirkland, Wash., on Tuesday, Nov. 23. From there, Whitman returns to Sherwood for a quick home-opener against Evergreen State College on Sunday, Nov. 28. The month of December gets rolling in California with the Lee Fulmer Tournament hosted at the University of Redlands.
“The Lee Fulmer Tournament should be a lot of fun for us,” Molitor says. “It’s the oldest NCAA Division III tournament in the country. This is its 57th year.”
Whitman opens the tourney against host Redlands, a team that averaged over 100 points a game a year ago, and then plays either Loras College of Iowa or the University of California-Santa Cruz, depending on first-day results.
To start the season, Whitman is playing without Greg Ricker, a junior point guard and an All-NWC Second Team selection last season. Ricker, who is studying off-campus during the fall semester, will return in time to play at NCAA Div. II Western Washington University on Dec. 30.
A year ago, the 6-foot-2 Ricker led Whitman in scoring eight times, including a career-high 27 points against Western Baptist when he made 10 of 15 shots from the floor. Ricker was one of only two underclassmen selected to the NWC Second Team (there were no freshmen or sophomores on the First Team), and he was third in the conference with a .576 shooting percentage from the field.
“Greg had several games last year that he kind of took over,” Molitor says. “Add a player of that caliber to the rest of team and we’re in pretty good shape as far as a starting five.”
Part of that mix will be a Walla Walla tandem -- juniors Erik Kofler and Matt Kelly.
Kelly, who played his first two seasons of college ball just up the road at the Walla Walla Community College, re-unites this winter with Kofler, another Walla Walla High School graduate now in his third season at Whitman.
“Kelly and Kofler give us a real nice inside-outside local tandem,” Molitor says. “Kofler is really turning into a threat offensively in the low post. He is one of the more skilled offensive big guys we have had here at Whitman.”
At 6-foot-8, Kofler could be an integral part of the team’s success at both ends of the court. A year ago as a sophomore, Kofler averaged about 13 minutes a game but managed to shoot over 53 percent from the floor, making 43of 81 shots.
As for Kelly, Molitor has high hopes for his 6-foot-2 newcomer. “Matt’s familiarity with Kofler really helps a lot,” Molitor says. “He is a tough-minded competitor and will have an immediate impact in this conference. He is as athletic a player as we can get. I really like his versatility. He can board well, defend one-on-one, and he should come up with some big steals.”
Whitman’s two senior captains this season are Mike Peterson, a 5-foot-10 point guard, and 6-foot-6 forward Nick Parker. Last season, Peterson started eight games and averaged 20 minutes per contest, while Parker battled for time with Kofler and a slew of since-graduated seniors, averaging almost 12 minutes a game. Both figure to be at least part-time starters this season.
“I’m real pleased with Peterson and Parker,” Molitor says. “Mike isn’t going to score big or do anything real spectacular, but the team performs well when he is on the floor. He has a huge heart and is an ideal senior captain.”
And the coach sounds just as enthusiastic about Parker. “Nick has had some outstanding minutes shooting the basketball for us,” Molitor says. “He is really showing his experience this fall. He is taking care of the ball in transition; he’s sound offensively, and he is rebounding. He will be a good influence on this team.”
The rest of the Missionaries are underclassmen. Kyle Born, a 6-foot-5 forward, and Ian Warner, a 5-foot-8 guard, show the most promise in the sophomore class. “We’re very excited about Ian,” Molitor says. “He will be a real factor at the point. He is a point guard who can score, and he can score off penetration. He’s out on the court first to run the club, but he has real good skills. He is strong physically and will be fun to watch.
“And Born will be one of our best three-year post players,” Molitor says. “We just had too many seniors to fit him into the rotation last year. Right from the get-go, you will want to keep track of his double-doubles, because he should have a lot. He plays really hard, runs the floor well and is just a relentless competitor on the boards at both ends of the floor.”
Two other possible contributors to this year’s squad are sophomore Aaron Hazel, a 6-foot-5 post from Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho, and 6-foot-3 freshman wing Garth Brandal, a graduate of Shoreline Christian High School in Seattle.
“Garth is our most-ready impact freshman,” Molitor says. “He’s a complete player. He can score, and he has good on-ball defense.” A first-team all-state selection as a junior in high school, Brandal has been a pleasant surprise, Molitor adds. “He scored a lot of points the last couple years.”
Hazel, while a sophomore academically, is in his first season of basketball. He transferred to Whitman last year after spending his first college semester at the University of Puget Sound.
Rounding out the roster are a pair of freshmen, Jordan Nelson and Paul Burdett, and one sophomore, Mike Moss.
Moss is a 5-foot-11 guard who saw action in just five games last season. “Mike has been shooting the ball as well as anyone on the team,” Molitor says.
Nelson, a 6-foot-7 post player from Thunder Ridge High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., comes loaded with potential. “Jordan is very strong and very powerful,” Molitor says. “He has good hoop presence and is a very good defensive rebounder. He comes out of a great program at Thunder Ridge at the state’s highest level.”
Once his new team takes shape, Molitor thinks his Missionaries will stack up well in the Northwest Conference. “Puget Sound is the clear favorite. I think what characterizes the league this year, more than any other year, is who will contend with the top team. It could literally be any of five or six teams. There’s no clear contender at this point.”
And for a young group of Whitman hardwood hounds, that perceived void near the top of the conference standings could be just what the doctor ordered.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
509 527-5902; email@example.com