WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- For Lizzy Washburn and Kyle Born, the basketball season this past winter evolved along similar storylines. Both athletes emerged as two of the most talented players on their respective Whitman College teams, as well as in the Northwest Conference. And while both were hampered at times by painful injuries, their basic approach never wavered. Whenever they played, they did so with reckless abandon and at break-neck speed. They played with the passion and intensity that warms the hearts of coaches and fans alike.
“Lizzy is a coach’s dream because she does everything at full speed,” Whitman women’s coach Michelle Ferenz says. “There’s no such thing as telling her to play harder or faster. That’s just her nature. She’s one of those special kids who competes every second she’s on the floor.”
“If anyone ranks ahead of Kyle in terms of effort and hustle, they are playing with an unbelievable amount of energy and intensity,” Whitman men’s coach Skip Molitor says. “We’re fortunate this season in that we have a number of guys who give it everything they have, and Kyle is definitely right there at the head of that pack.”
Born, a 6-foot-6-inch sophomore forward from Stanwood, Wash., was enjoying a break-out season in late January when back problems sent him to the sidelines. His basketball numbers to that point were superlative. A quick and relentless rebounder, he was averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, tops in the NWC. He was making 63.5 percent of his shots from the floor, the second-best mark in the conference, while averaging 12.3 points per game, the second-highest average on his team.
Born also was leading Whitman in double-doubles, the basketball term that notes when a player reaches double digits in both points and rebounds. In his first 18 games, Born had five double-doubles, including a 34-point, 16-rebound effort at the University of Redlands and a 25-point, 17-rebound night against Willamette University. Born fell one rebound short of double-doubles in three other games. “I don’t think a 20-rebound game is too far down the road in Kyle’s future,” Molitor says. “He has a tenacious nose for the ball around the basket.”
Meanwhile, after splitting open her right elbow in a late December game, Washburn played at less than 100 percent through parts of January when an antibiotic-resistant staph infection settled into the elbow. Despite the pain and nausea that came with having the wound opened repeatedly and packed with absorbent gauze, the 5-foot-9-inch junior entered February as Whitman’s leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (6.5 rpg). She was shooting 54.7 percent from the floor, the third-best mark in the NWC. She also had a pair of double-doubles, falling one rebound short of three others.
Before January’s elbow woes, Washburn, who came to Whitman from Mundelein, Ill., enjoyed a stellar month of December. She was named MVP of Whitman’s Bon Appetit Classic, and she made the all-tourney teams at two other weekend tournaments. In early December, she was named NWC Player of the Week, in part because of a career-high 28 points she scored in a victory over Northwest College. She made 11 of 12 shots from the floor in that game, grabbed seven rebounds and made four steals.
In addition to sharing an all-out playing style, Born and Washburn enjoy similar success in the classroom. A mathematics major who plans a career in teaching and coaching, Washburn carried a 3.798 college grade point average (gpa) into the spring semester. Born, who was pondering an English major and talks of a possible career in photo journalism, had a 3.604 gpa at the semester break.
Washburn, a guard in high school for the Mundelein Mustangs, made the switch to forward early in her Whitman career. While she’s a bit undersized for the bruising play under the basket, she has thrived in that environment and has no regrets. “Oh yes, I love the physical play in the post area,” Washburn says. “Plus the shots are much easier and closer. I like the layups.”
Washburn uses her strength, quickness and athleticism to hold her own around the hoop, Ferenz says. “Lizzy is a very physical player on defense who just works her tail off,” her coach says. “Other players don’t cut across the key on her, no matter how big they might be. Lizzy is going to meet them in the key, and she’s going to make them go somewhere they don’t want to go.”
Washburn also serves as a whirling dervish at the point of Whitman’s full-court press, Ferenz notes. “Lizzy is so relentless. She hunts people down and gets her hands in there. Other kids might give up defensively because they don’t think they have a play on the ball. Lizzy doesn’t give up.”
Washburn, who has served as volunteer mentor for a young Walla Walla girl the past three years, radiates a far different persona off the court, Ferenz says. “For all the toughness and aggression she brings to athletics, she is the sweetest, nicest person outside of basketball. She also tutors kids, and she’s wonderful around them. She’s very supportive and patient. Lizzy is a study in contrasts. She has a great, goofy sense of humor, but she’s also a very intelligent young woman who’s just as tough as nails. It works for her.”
After doctors misdiagnosed a stress fracture in his left foot, Born missed all but six games during his senior season for the Stanwood High Spartans. “That was such a huge disappointment for me,” Born says, and he considered bringing his competitive basketball career to a close. But Molitor took notice when Born’s high school coach raved about his work ethic and potential. “Those are two attributes in a player that tend to perk up the ears of a college coach,” Molitor says.
“I liked Whitman from the first time I stepped on campus,” Born says. “I could see lots of potential, both in academics and basketball. I know I made the right choice because I love this place. I have yet to take a class I didn’t like.”
“Because he didn’t get to play much as a senior in high school, it’s a heart-warming story to see Kyle do so well here,” Molitor adds. “He has great passion for the game, and his work ethic is incredible. It’s been great to see him play with such confidence and strength. He’s hit a couple of big three-point baskets this season and then let loose with a big ol’ war whoop. It gets everyone’s attention, and it gets the competitive juices flowing in his teammates.”
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
509 527-5902; email@example.com