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WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Michelle Ferenz, one of the most successful high school coaches in the state of Washington during the 1990s, has taken the helm of the women's basketball program at Whitman College.
Ferenz, 32, replaces Lori Napier, who held the Whitman coaching position on an interim basis last year.
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.
In addition to her coaching duties at Whitman, Ferenz will teach classes in sports studies and first aid. A private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,350 students, Whitman competes athletically in the nine-school Northwest Conference (NWC) and is affiliated nationally with NCAA Division III.
Other NWC schools are Pacific Lutheran University, Whitworth College and the University of Puget Sound in Washington state, and Willamette University, Lewis & Clark College, George Fox University, Linfield College and Pacific University in Oregon.
"Michelle is a fine addition to our department," Whitman athletic director Travis Feezell said. "She is tremendously talented. She has the coaching, teaching and personal skills to do very well at Whitman. Her background in basketball is filled with success both as a player and a coach. I have no doubts that success will follow her to our campus."
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, who taught English classes while coaching at Okanogan, completed a master's degree in educational administration in 1998 through Heritage College (Toppenish, Wash.). She then taught literature and writing classes at the Heritage extension campus in Omak, Wash., from September 1998 through December 1999.
Married and the mother of three children, Ferenz left her Okanogan coaching position after the 1999-2000 season, when her family moved to Anacortes, Wash. Her husband, Chris, was the boys' coach at Okanogan for eight years before accepting the same position at Anacortes. "Both Chris and I felt it was time for a change, which was part of the reason for the move," she said. "We've always had an agreement that if one of us finds a better coaching and teaching position, that's where the family goes."
During her one year at Anacortes, Ferenz taught ninth grade English classes and helped coach the junior high girls' basketball team. When she learned of the coaching opening at Whitman, she applied. "I was thrilled to be chosen," she said. "For me, this is a dream job. It's going be fun and challenging to coach at this level."
Meanwhile, her husband is hoping to teach high school math this fall in the Walla Walla area. "If Chris can find a teaching position, he also wants to help coach boys' basketball in some capacity. If that doesn't happen on short notice, he will continue working on his high school principal's accreditation."
A 6-foot-8 forward, Chris Ferenz played four seasons of basketball at the University of California-Davis, graduating in 1988 with a degree in kinesiology and biomechanics. His early coaching career included one season at UC-Davis and two seasons at both Eastern Montana and Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. He played two seasons of professional basketball in Australia. "Chris and I met when he was the assistant men's coach at Eastern Montana and finishing his master's degree in education," Ferenz said.
Ferenz began her competitive basketball career at Seattle's Chief Sealth High School. She made varsity as a freshman and earned second-team all-league honors as a sophomore. Her team won Metro AA titles both seasons, placing third and fifth in the state tournaments. Midway through her junior year, she moved to Auburn, Wash., with her mother and sister. She quickly slipped into a starter's role at Auburn, helping her team win two straight league titles. Individually, she earned first-team all-conference honors as a senior.
After graduating from Auburn with high honors (17th in a class of 600), Ferenz was accepted at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, Pomona-Pitzer and Seattle Pacific. "For financial reasons, I stayed close to home and went to Highline Community College in Des Moines," she said. In her two seasons at Highline, Ferenz averaged 18 points a game and led her team to north region titles both seasons. She was a two-time, first-team all-conference selection, and she earned MVP honors at the league's 1988 all-star game.
Ferenz continued her college career at Eastern Montana, attracted by both its academic emphasis on the education field and its basketball program. As a junior, she averaged about 13 points per game and earned honorable mention all-conference recognition. When the school changed coaches, however, she transferred to Western Washington University with the intention of finishing her degree and playing career there.
"Because of the NCAA's rules at that time, I had to sit out one season before I could play again," Ferenz said. "Before that happened, though, the new coach at Eastern Montana re-recruited me, and I'm glad I went back. We had a great season when I was a senior."
With Ferenz earning second-team all-conference honors and again averaging in double figures in scoring, Eastern Montana posted a 25-5 record. She was named conference Player of the Week in December, and she nabbed a spot on the All-Academic First Team.
Having excelled in academics in high school and college, Ferenz looks forward to coaching in Whitman's academic setting. "I understand the balancing act that goes into coaching young people who have strong academic interests and full, busy lives," she said. "The situation was very similar at Okanogan. It was a small school and my players were often pulled in many different directions at once. Many of my players were leaders in other activities, and I coached four or five valedictorians in the time I was there. Those players came to practice ready to apply themselves, and we got a lot done in the time that was available. As a coach, you learn to get your players prepared in a short time."
Jimmy Hill, a two-year starter on the Whitman men's team, will return this fall for his second season as an assistant coach for the women's squad. "Jimmy is finishing up his teaching accreditation, and it's great that he's coming back," Ferenz said. "He'll give the returning players a sense of continuity. He knows the conference and other teams."
Her husband also plans to help on an informal basis. "Both Jimmy and I were perimeter players, but Chris brings a great understanding of the inside game," she said. "He's a great teacher for the post players, and he does a great job with traps and match-up zones. Even if he isn't able to make all the practices, he can help me at home. We've always helped one another when it comes to looking at video tape or scouting."
Ferenz has yet to decide what style of play her first Whitman team might display. "For this first year especially, I need to get a better look at our players before deciding what's best for us. I like to press and run as much as anyone, but it depends on the personnel we have."
Ferenz will build this winter's team around eight returning players, including a nucleus of four seniors, and four first-year athletes. "I've talked to all of the players on the phone this summer, and I'm impressed with what I've heard. All of us look forward to getting started."