WALLA WALLA, Wash. Ė Whatís a basketball coach to do when a strong senior class trades its basketball shoes for commencement caps and gowns?
For Skip Molitor, the menís coach at Whitman College, the answer rests with his latest batch of seniors, a group he feels is every bit as talented as its immediate predecessor. "Itís been great building this season around another strong senior class," Molitor says on the verge of his 13th campaign at the Missionary helm.
Kyle Born, Ian Warner and Aaron Hazel are the seniors entrusted with the filling the shoes of last seasonís senior triumvirate -- Greg Ricker, Matt Kelly and Erik Kofler. Ricker averaged 9.0 points and 5.3 assists, Kelly led the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game, and Kofler chipped in with 12 points and 7.2 rebounds a night.
Despite the loss of those numbers, Molitor feels just fine about handing the reins to captain Warner and co-captains Born and Hazel. "We couldnít ask for better leadership from all three," Molitor says. "They play as hard as they can for as long as they can."
Overcoming a spate of nagging injuries, the 6-foot-6 Born has established himself over the past two years as one of the best and most relentless players in the Northwest Conference. After recovering from a broken foot at the start of last season, Born resumed his all-out attack on the backboards and hoop, averaging 14.3 points per game while shooting over 62 percent from the floor for the second time in two seasons. He averaged 10.1 rebounds in NWC games, which topped the conference.
Last January, Born blitzed eventual NWC champion Puget Sound for an eye-popping 27 points and 22 rebounds. Over his first six conference games, he averaged nearly 21 points and 13 boards per night. At seasonís end, he was voted to the All-NWC Second Team, a step up from the Honorable Mention recognition he received as a sophomore.
"One of our team goals this season is for Kyle to stay healthy enough to play 800 minutes by the time itís over," Molitor says. "We really donít want Kyle to tone down his style of play too much, but we also want him to approach is practices and games with the idea of trying to stay healthy. You donít have to worry about Kyle not playing too hard. In his case, itís just the opposite."
While Born runs the floor well and does most of his scoring in the paint, he also hit 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season, making eight of 18 shots. In addition to his all-conference honors, the English major was voted to ESPN the Magazineís Academic All-District Team.
Warner, a 5-foot-8 point guard, is just as indefatigable on the court as Born. He averaged 9.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists last season, playing primarily as an off guard while Ricker finished his career at the point.
"Ian is back for his second season as team captain," Molitor says. "He gives us phenomenal leadership and toughness. He communicates well with his teammates, and he plays the game with a tremendous amount of heart, composure and intensity."
Hazel, a 6-foot-5 post, started half of Whitmanís games last season, averaging 7.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.
"Aaron had a very good season last year," Molitor says. "He averaged nearly 20 minutes a game while shooting over 60 percent from the floor. Heís one of our strongest players, and he has a unique ability to finish around the basket. He gives us a good presence around the hoop."
Hazel ranked No. 2 in the NWC last season in blocked shots, swatting away 27 attempts in 24 games. All but five of those blocks came in just 16 NWC games. "Aaron is the leading returning shot blocker in the conference," Molitor says. "His timing is good in terms of getting his hand on shot attempts. He became more disciplined last season in knowing when to leave his feet and when to hold his ground."
Chris Faidley, a junior with sophomore eligibility, will start this season after averaging 21 minutes off the bench last winter. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard scored 10.4 points per game while knocking down 41.6 percent of his three-point shots (52-125).
"In my 12 seasons at Whitman, last year was the first time weíve had a player come off the bench and average double-digit points," Molitor says. "Chris will be one of the premier three-point shooters in the conference this year. When heís in rhythm, which is more often than not, itís a joy to watch him shoot the ball."
What Faidley isnít, Molitor adds, is one dimensional. "Chris knows how to play, and heís crafty. He can put the ball on the floor, take it to the basket and either finish or get his teammates good shots."
The player Molitor pegs as his fifth starter is Garth Brandal, a 6-foot-3 wing who averaged 14 minutes and 3.4 points in a reserve role last year.
"Garth is a nice complement to the rest of our starters," Molitor says. "While he can score, he can also help his team in ways that donít always show up in the box score. He plays extremely hard, and heís one of our best defenders. He also does a great job of executing whatever it is weíre trying to do offensively and defensively. He adds a lot of cohesiveness to our team concept."
A trio of sophomore forwards Ė Keefe Piper (6-4), Brendan Ziegler (6-4) and Wes Bird (6-5) Ė give the Missionaries strength and depth off the bench, Molitor says. "All three have a season under their belts, and all three can run the floor and bang inside. Keefe got the most minutes last year, but Ziggy and Bird are very capable of helping us this season."
Molitor also likes his freshman class, and he expects immediate contributions from at least a few of his rookies.
Graham Brewer, a 6-foot-8 post player from Littleton, Colo., has the "potential to be one of the best post players who has ever worn a Missionary uniform," Molitor says. "Graham has a good feel for the game and great touch around the basket. Heís a hard worker and great kid. He has an extremely bright future."
Jordan Brandon, a 6-foot-5 guard from Seattle, is another big talent in the freshman class, Molitor says. Brandon started for two seasons at Seattle Prep, which rode the considerable talents of 7-foot center Spencer Hawes to last yearís Class 3A state championship. Hawes is playing for the University of Washington this season.
"Itís great to have a player of Jordanís stature in our program," Molitor says. "Heís a very good slasher and transition player. Heís going to have a very good career here."
Grant Brandal, a 6-foot-3 wing from Seattleís Shoreline Christian, is another freshman who is "very capable of getting on the floor for us this season," Molitor says. "Grant is a lot like his brother Garth in that he does a lot of things that make his teammates better."
Rounding out the freshman class are Christopher Tobin-Campbell, a 6-foot point guard from Davis, Calif.; David Changa-Moon, a 6-foot guard from Seattleís Lakeside School; and J.J. Ooi, a 5-foot-8 point guard from Beaverton, Ore.
Whitman kicks off its season this Saturday with a non-conference game at Corban College in Salem, Ore. The Missionaries then take a brief dip into NWC play, hosting Lewis & Clark and Pacific on Dec. 1-2.
Whitman returns to non-conference play for the rest of December, playing San Francisco State and Warner Pacific during its annual Wildhorse Resort tournament Dec. 8-9. The Missionaries host a second California school, Biola, on Dec. 16 before embarking on a long road trip at the end of the calendar year.
"We practice in Seattle on Dec. 27 and 28, fly to Los Angeles on Dec. 29 and play West Coast Baptist the next day," Molitor says. "Weíre off Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 before picking up games at La Sierra and Redlands and then flying to Portland on Jan. 4 to restart the conference season at George Fox and Linfield."
"Itís a long road trip, but itís a great time to do it, and itíll be a great team-building experience," Molitor says. "It should prepare us well for the rest of the conference season."
At the end of the NWC regular season, the top three teams will do battle for an automatic berth into the NCAA Div. III post season.
"Most people see Puget Sound and Whitworth as the favorites," Molitor says. "As always, the league will be very competitive, and with a three-team playoff at the end, it gives everyone a chance to scramble around for one of the top three spots."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information,
(509) 527-5902; email@example.com