WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- After winning a share of the Northwest Conference title last season, the Whitman College women’s basketball team tips off a new season next week in California. With a roster featuring nine returning players, the Missionaries open at the University of California-Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Nov. 24, and then play a pair of games in the Menlo College Thanksgiving Classic on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 26-27.
Now in her fourth season at Whitman, coach Michelle Ferenz is ready to build on last winter’s success. After leading a young squad to Whitman’s first basketball championship title in more than a decade, Ferenz was honored as the NWC Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year. “We had a great season last year,” Ferenz says. “This year’s team has a chance to be very good if we stay focused on improving and not on wins and losses. With nine returners we are excited to get started with games.”
Winning 12 of its last 13 games, Whitman finished the 2003-04 season with a 19-6 regular season record and a 13-3 mark in the NWC, good enough for a first-place tie with Puget Sound. Unfortunately for the Missionaries, Puget Sound won a coin toss to claim the NWC’s lone ticket to the NCAA Div. III playoffs.
Whitman set school records last year for most wins in a season (19), most consecutive wins (nine), and highest winning percentage (.760). In this year’s preseason poll of NWC coaches, the Missionary women received three first-place votes and 74 total points, placing them second behind Puget Sound by two points.
Junior Laura Vertatschitsch and sophomore Katie Patneaude earned All-NWC honors for the Missionaries last season.
Patneaude was the only first-year player named to the conference first team. A 5-foot-10 guard, Patneaude averaged 11.7 points and a team-leading 5.8 rebounds per game. She posted two double-doubles during the season, combining 12 points and ten rebounds against Lewis & Clark and 12 rebounds and ten points against Pacific Lutheran. “Katie had a great freshman season, Ferenz says. “Her strength is her all-around game. She does so many things well.”
Vertatschitsch, a 5-foot-7 junior, received honorable mention recognition last season. Despite breaking a bone in her left foot in a season-opening victory over Colorado College, Vertatschitsch started all but two of Whitman’s remaining games while averaging a team-leading 12.6 points per game. She scored 21 points in two games, once against Eastern Oregon and once against Pacific. “After battling injuries for two seasons, Laura is feeling strong and playing well,” Ferenz says. “She is always a great spark for us both offensively and defensively.”
Juniors Lizzy Washburn and Megan Higgins and sophomore Sarah Laird also figure to be significant contributors for the Missionaries this year.
Washburn, a 5-foot-9 forward, averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in her sophomore campaign. She capped her season with a double-double, scoring 12 points to go with 10 rebounds and four assists in a season-ending victory that clinched Whitman’s share of the NWC title. “Lizzy is the hardest worker on the team,” Ferenz says. “She really improved last year and was playing well at the end of the season. This season she has picked up right where she left off.”
Higgins, a 5-foot-6 point guard, looks to lead the Whitman women in the backcourt in the 2004-05 season. Despite missing several games after separating a shoulder in practice in late January, she averaged 7.8 points and tallied a team-high 70 assists in 18 games. “Megan has really worked hard on her defense and is playing well,” Ferenz says. “She is one of our most vocal leaders.”
Laird, a 5-foot-11 forward from Los Altos, Calif., averaged 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. In a December non-conference game, Laird blitzed the University of Great Falls for 29 points and seven rebounds. Her best single-game rebounding effort came against Willamette, when she grabbed 10 boards. “Sarah started every game last season and was very consistent,” Ferenz says. “She can play inside as well as on the perimeter, and she has a nice shooting touch.”
With two just two seniors on its roster, Whitman remains a young team. The two seniors are 5-foot-10 forward Anna Stephenson and 5-foot-7 guard Lindsey Gehrig. Both players missed the first half of last season while on foreign study. Stephenson was in New Zealand, Gehrig in London.
“Lindsay and Anna have been so important to our success over the last four years,” Ferenz says. “They have been committed to helping us improve on and off the court and have always been a pleasure to coach. We will need their experience off the bench if we are going to have another successful season.”
Junior Cheyenne Cotler, a 6-foot center who played her first season at California’s Mendocino Community College, and 5-foot-7 sophomore guard Sarah Nicholes also return from last year’s squad. “Cheyenne worked hard in the off-season and improved,” Ferenz says. “Sarah is a good shooter and a smart player. She is very consistent and someone we can always count on to execute.” Cotler appeared in 18 games for the Missionaries last year while Nicholes averaged 6.3 minutes in 15 games.
A junior new to the squad this year, and a player expected to have an immediate impact, is Laura Sprague, a 5-foot-9 wing-guard from Soda Springs, Idaho. She played her first two college seasons at Walla Walla Community College. “Laura had a great sophomore season at WWCC,” Ferenz says. “She is such a great addition to our team. She brings a great shooting touch and a lot of ‘basketball smarts.’”
Ferenz has high praise for her two first-year players -- Kelsey Krumdieck, a 6-foot forward from Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, Calif., and Kristina Francis, a 5-7 guard from Blaine (Wash.) High School.
“Kelsey was named Athlete of the Year at Rancho Bernardo last year and had a great senior year helping her team win a league title,” Ferenz says. “She is a very complete offensive player and will be a solid contributor as she gains physical strength and gets used to the collegiate game.”
“Kristina was an all-conference performer at Blaine,” Ferenz says. “She has really improved over the past few weeks and will also be a strong contributor as she gets more comfortable with our system.”
The Whitman women play their first home games in hosting a four-team tournament on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3-4. Then, after playing in tournaments later in December at Lewis-Clark State and Whitworth, the Missionaries open their NWC slate at home on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 7-8.
“The strength of this year’s team is its balance,” Ferenz says. “We don’t have any superstars but we have a lot of good players who play well together. And that’s where our success will come from.”
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
509 527-5902; firstname.lastname@example.org