WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- A few weeks ago, Whitman women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz was excited, ambitious and confident. Now she’s just worried.
With a roster anchored by four battle-tested seniors, three of whom earned all-conference honors a year ago, the Missionaries seem poised at first glance to reclaim the Northwest Conference crown they shared with Puget Sound in 2004. But Whitman has yet to play an official game and five players have already been sidelined by injury. Ferenz’s rotation is down to eight and the Missionaries are working hard just to keep this season’s dream alive.
“We have a nice, strong core of kids with experience, and we should have a really good year,” Ferenz says. “But the injuries have been very disruptive to our pre-season.”
Whitman’s official season commences later this week at the University of Chicago’s Midway Classic. The Missionaries then travel to Caldwell, Idaho, a week later for the Lady ‘Yote Classic. Northwest Conference play begins on Dec. 2-3 at Linfield and George Fox.
A year ago, Whitman cruised to six victories in its first seven games, but injuries helped derail Whitman’s bid for a second straight conference title. The Missionaries finished at 14-11 overall, which included a 9-7 mark in conference, good enough for a fourth-place tie with Puget Sound.
This year, a similar barrage of injuries has arrived early. “We’ve been hit hard,” Ferenz says. “It makes practice very challenging. We’re not deep enough to run practice the right way and the kids who are healthy never get a break. We’ve handled it well most days, but our plans for what we want done have been set back a bit.”
Whitman’s primary strength this year, despite all its injuries, will be experience. Three Missionary seniors have been starters for three years and have dealt with plenty of adversity before. Team captains Megan Higgins, Lizzy Washburn and Laura Vertatschitsch long ago established themselves as consistent contributors and committed leaders.
Higgins, a vocal 5-foot-6 point guard, led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio and ranked among the top 20 nationally in that category. She averaged 4.88 assists per game, which also topped the conference. She received All-NWC honorable mention, an honor she also received in her rookie season at Whitman.
Vertatschitsch, a 5-foot-7 guard, averaged 10.2 points per contest, and earned honorable mention recognition for the second time in two seasons.
Washburn, a 5-foot-9 forward, enjoyed a break-out season last winter, averaging 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds en route to Second Team All-NWC honors. Washburn, who was slowed midway through the season with a debilitating staph infection, also led Whitman with 20 blocks and 55 steals.
“The players from my first recruiting class at Whitman are now seniors,” Ferenz says. “They understand the system, know how tough our conference is and understand we need to be physically and mentally prepared every night we play.”
Whitman’s senior class also includes two skilled players with long histories of health setbacks. Laura Sprague, a 5-foot-9 wing who played her first two seasons at Walla Walla Community College, has a lethal outside shot but has been sidelined with knee problems. Leyla Khastou missed her sophomore and junior seasons due to injuries and is still working her way back into basketball. However, Ferenz hopes the 6-footer will provide post depth and physical strength down low.
“Sprague can really shoot and score in bunches,” Ferenz says. “Leyla will help us once she gets back into shape and gets her timing back, but it’s always hard after being away from the sport for so long.”
The Missionaries will lean heavily on a small but capable junior trio. Katie Patneaude, Sarah Laird and Sarah Nicholes should keep Whitman balanced and competitive. Patneaude was the conference’s only first-year, first-team all-conference selection in 2003-04 and played at a high level again last season. The 5-foot-10 guard averaged 9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 30 minutes a game. Laird, a 5-foot-11 forward, worked hard in the off-season and came back to school stronger than ever, although she also been slowed recently by injury. As for Nicholes, Ferenz calls her third junior an essential bench presence.
“Sarah Nicholes is just solid,” Ferenz says. “She’s reliable, keeps everyone organized, works very hard and can really shoot. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Katie is playing really well, too. She’s a tall guard who is a tough match-up. She has a complete game. Laird came back this fall and looked great in open gym, but she is trying to work through sore legs right now.”
Sophomore Kelsey Krumdieck, a 6-foot forward, is back on the floor this winter, trying to regain the form that earned her a starting spot last season before she suffered a severe knee injury. Emily Shubin, an athletic 5-foot-10 sophomore transfer with strong rebounding skills, will miss at least part of the season after fracturing an ankle on the second day of practice.
Kristina Francis, a returning sophomore blessed with superior court vision and passing ability, is healthy and playing well. A 5-foot-7 guard, Francis will see time at point guard in addition to off-guard and small forward. “Kristina came back in great shape,” Ferenz says. “I’m really excited for her.”
A small first-year class rounds out the Whitman roster. Kalla Vavra, a 5-foot-10 forward, continues to struggle with chronic back issues. On the other hand, Katherine DeVleming has been a more pleasant surprise. The 5-foot-7 guard has been thrust into an important role due to Whitman’s training room woes and has responded well. “Katie is very quick, bright and gets better every day,” Ferenz says.
Recent Whitman squads, under Ferenz, have been speedy and athletic, relying on fast-break baskets rather than half-court offensive sets. This year’s crew is no exception, but when and if the entire roster is healthy, the Missionaries should possess a more formidable front-line than they have fielded in a while. If possible, Ferenz plans to post-up opponents early and often.
On defense, the Missionaries will utilize more man-to-man sets than before. Whitman’s experienced seniors and juniors have helped make the Missionaries a perennial conference-leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and should continue to take good care of the ball.
“With all of our injuries we’re going to have to get creative on ‘D’,” Ferenz says. “But our veteran group should be able to handle it. More importantly we need to work on rebounding, shot selection and taking care of the basketball.”
This season marks the return of the NWC post-season tournament and Ferenz stressed the competitive nature and parity that define Whitman’s league. She expects George Fox to be strong despite losing two impact players, Pacific Lutheran to gain ground with the help of transfers, and Puget Sound and Whitworth to figure in the mix.
In a pre-season poll of NWC coaches, the Whitman women are picked to finish second behind defending champion George Fox. Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound and Whitworth round out the projected top five.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information,
(509) 527-5902; email@example.com