WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- With most of last year’s roster returning, including all five starters, coach Skip Molitor has reason for optimism on the eve of his 12th season with the Whitman College men’s basketball team.
“We’re very excited about returning our starting line-up from a year ago,” Molitor says. “Last year we took our knocks, but we’ve gained a realization of what it takes to be successful. We’re showing a matured commitment.”
Whitman’s season began Saturday, Nov. 5, in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a 77-54 exhibition game loss against NCAA Div. 1 University of Utah. The Missionaries played well in stretches against one of the premier Div. I teams in the country (a year ago the Utes produced the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in Andrew Bogut), and outshot their hosts 10 to two from the three-point line.
Win or lose, the Missionaries should be fun to watch this winter. According to Molitor, this group is the most athletic he’s ever coached at Whitman. “We have speed, size, quickness and strength,” he says. “It’s a nice place to start.”
More than anything, Molitor’s Missionaries are experience. Nine of Whitman’s fifteen players are holdovers from last season. They know the system and they’re determined to make the most of 2005-06. “Your leadership frequently determines your personality, and with our captains and seniors, our team leadership is outstanding,” he says.
A trio of seniors should provide the Missionaries with offensive firepower and defensive intensity. Seniors Greg Ricker, Matt Kelly and Erik Kofler are all dangerously talented players who create tough match-ups for Whitman opponents. Molitor is especially anxious to see what Ricker will do this season. The 6-foot-2 co-captain is Whitman’s on-court conductor and Molitor’s top defensive stopper. As a sophomore, Ricker shot 57.6 percent from the floor, led the NWC in assists and was named to the All-NWC Second Team, but he got off to a slow start last season while studying off campus during the fall semester. Still, Ricker bounced back to lead the Missionaries in assists and steals, and Molitor is confident this season will be the point guard’s best yet.
Kelly, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, will join Ricker in Whitman’s starting backcourt. Kelly, who played his first two seasons at Walla Walla Community College, led the Missionaries in scoring last year. He averaged just over 16 points per game and was awarded a NWC honorable mention. “Matt Kelly’s athleticism is very exciting,” Molitor says. “He has great speed and jumping ability. He’s a very gifted offensive player.”
Kofler brings intimidating height and great basketball skills to both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-8 post averaged 12 points a year ago and was among the conference leaders in rebounding. Kofler pulled down 191 boards in 2004-05 and led Whitman with 31 blocks. Like Kelly, Kofler is a Walla Walla native and the two played together at Walla Walla High School. “Kofler has an opportunity to go out in fine fashion,” Molitor says.
Another trio of experienced Missionaries will complement Ricker, Kelly and Kofler. Less flashy but just as effective as their senior counterparts, juniors Ian Warner, Kyle Born and Aaron Hazel will be integral to Whitman’s success. Warner, another point guard named co-captain by his teammates, is deadly from behind the three-point arc and may be Whitman’s quickest player. Warner averaged 8.6 points per game last year, drained 38 three-pointers and collected 28 steals.
“That an experienced team would express that level of confidence in a junior and make him captain speaks volumes about Ian,” Molitor says. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy who will do a great job adding purpose and cohesion to our group.”
Born missed Missionary exhibition opener in Utah. The 6-foot-6 forward, who was Whitman’s most dominant player at times last season, is out with a broken foot and probably won’t see the court until late December. Born has been plagued by injuries throughout his college career, a tragedy considering the incredible numbers he put up early last season. Before he was sidelined by back problems, Whitman’s aggressive rebounding-machine went on an impressive tear. Over one four-game span Born averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds per game while converting 35 of 44 field goal attempts.
“Born runs the floor remarkably well for a big man and is one of the hardest workers in the league,” Molitor says. “We will have him back for 14 of 16 league games, so we’re counting our blessings.”
In the meantime, the 6-foot-5 Hazel will fill the void on the blocks. A strong post-player with a feathery inside touch, Hazel led Whitman in field goal percentage last season. “Aaron finished the year above 60 percent from the field in conference play,” Molitor says. “He’s got two years to maximize his abilities. He’s as strong a player and as good a jumper as we have.”
Two sophomores will battle for playing time this season as well. Garth Brandal, a 6-foot-3 wing, gained valuable court experience a year ago and offers scoring versatility off the bench. Chris Faidley, a 6-foot-2 sophomore transfer from Seattle Pacific University, has freshman athletic eligibility and should make an immediate impact. Sophomore post Jordan Nelson will sit out the season due to injury.
“Garth is immensely improved,” Molitor says. “He’s much stronger and quicker. He’s also more confident shooting the ball and has made the transition from small high school ball to the college level. Chris is an exciting transfer who will join a short list of premier shooters we’ve had go through our program. He’s got a quick release and a chance to be a conference leader in three-pointers.”
Three true freshman round out Whitman’s rotation. Keefe Piper (Seattle Prep) and Brendan Ziegler (Issaquah High) are a pair of 6-foot-4 forwards, and 6-foot-5 Wes Bird (Hanford High) adds more depth and size to the Missionary arsenal. Piper is a smart player with great potential, Molitor notes, while Ziegler is an athletic slasher. Bird, who played varsity soccer for Whitman this fall, is a physical force below the basket.
“Keefe will see a lot of minutes in the pre-season because he does things that coaches love,” Molitor says. “He’s a tremendous screener and good at boxing out. Brendan can play both perimeter and post, and is one of our best communicators.”
At Seattle Prep, Keefe played with NBA draft pick Martell Webster. At Issaquah, Ziegler played on a team strong enough last winter to knock Seattle Prep out of the state high school tournament.
Whitman kicks off its season on Sunday, Nov. 20, hosting Montana Tech. The Missionaries stay home Nov. 26-27 for the annual Wildhorse Resort Classic, taking on Eastern Oregon and Concordia-Portland. The Northwest Conference schedule begins Dec. 2-3 with Whitman playing at Linfield and George Fox.
“Our pre-season includes some high-profile teams, but we’ll hold our own,” Molitor says.
As the new season unfolds, the Missionaries hope to improve their three-point shooting. Molitor also wants his team to improve on defense, and he plans to use new strategies he picked up during a sabbatical stint at an NBA International basketball camp in Argentina.
Molitor won’t be surprised if the University of Puget Sound captures a third straight NWC title this season, but he expects a number of teams to give them a run. The NWC’s post-season tournament is back, with the conference’s top three squads advancing to the playoffs. Molitor believes Whitman can be one of those teams.
Official Whitman practices started just a few weeks ago, but early indications have been positive. A number of Missionaries played together in a NCAA-sanctioned league this summer and hit the gym hard in the off-season. Their work seems to have paid off.
“We’re looking good,” Molitor says. “It’s very apparent that this group is eager to take their effort and concentration up a notch from last year.”
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information,
(509) 527-5902; email@example.com