WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Making amends, perhaps, for a preseason poll that picked the Whitman College women's basketball team to finish in last place, coaches in the Northwest Conference have voted Whitman's Michelle Ferenz as Women's Coach of the Year.
Ferenz was honored in her third season at Whitman, after leading her young squad to a 19-6 season and a share of the Northwest Conference title. Whitman and the University of Puget Sound both compiled 13-3 records in conference play to finish atop the league standings. It was Whitman's first NWC title since the 1987-88 season.
"Michelle has done an outstanding job on two fronts," Whitman athletic director Travis Feezell said. "First, she has done an excellent job coaching this team; it's a very young team, but she created an atmosphere of expectations and success.
"Second, she has done an outstanding job of recruiting. She works tirelessly at that task and has attracted wonderful and talented young women. Put talented coaching and tireless recruiting in the crucible, add a little bit of luck and a dash of belief, and you get a year like we had. It's been great to see. I couldn't imagine a better award winner than Michelle."
After splitting their first four NWC games in January, the Whitman women reeled off a school-record nine consecutive victories, eight against conference foes. By season's end, the Missionaries had won 12 of their final 13 games. The squad also set school records for most victories in a season and highest winning percentage.
By the latter stages of the season, Ferenz was using a starting line-up comprised of two first-year players, two sophomores and one senior. Her first two players off the bench also came from her first- and second-year classes. The Missionaries averaged 64.7 points per game on the season, with all but 11.3 points coming from her two youngest classes.
Ferenz and her team also overcame their share of injuries. Sophomore point guard Megan Higgins was leading the NWC in assists when she separated a shoulder in late Januaray and missed several games. Sophomore guard Laura Vertatschitsch, who suffered a broken bone in her left foot in a season-opening victory, finished out the season, starting a total of 23 games while leading Whitman in scoring. Vertatschitsch and first-year guard Shea Morrissey will also have post-season arthroscopic surgery to fix knee injuries suffered during the season.
Ferenz, one of the most successful high school coaches in the state of Washington during the 1990s, came to Whitman in August of 2001, too late to do any recruiting for her first season. That team won seven games and placed eighth in the nine-school NWC. Whitman won nine games in her second season, moving up to sixth place and setting the state for this year's success.
As coach of the girls' team at Okanogan High School in north-central Washington, Ferenz averaged 18 victories a year in nine winning seasons. Her overall win-loss record was 162-56, which included a school record 22-4 season in 1997-98. Twice named Coach of the Year in the Caribou Trail League, she led three teams to the Class A state tournament.
A 5-foot-11 forward during her own playing days, Ferenz twice earned all-conference honors at Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University-Billings). She graduated with high honors in 1991. Her education degree includes an English major and history minor.
Ferenz is the second Whitman coach to earn Coach of the Year honors to cap the winter sports season. Jennifer Blomme, the men's and women's swim coach, was honored two weeks ago by the NWC as the Coach of the Year for women's swimming.