WALLA WALLA, Wash. – A changing of the guard is underway as the Whitman College women’s basketball team makes final preparations for what promises to be a season of transition this winter.
"We lost five seniors to graduation last spring, which is a huge hit," Whitman coach Michelle Ferenz says. "The loss is magnified because three of them were all-conference players who were starters for most of their four seasons here."
With Lizzy Washburn, Megan Higgins and Laura Vertatschitsch now gracing Whitman’s alumni rolls, the Missionaries are sporting a different look this season. "This is a very different team, and we’re definitely a much younger team," Ferenz says. "We have six returning players, five first-year players and a senior who transferred back after being gone for two years. So, that’s six new players, which is a lot. For half the team, everything we are doing is brand new."
The new-look Missionaries, anchored by returning starters Katie Patneaude and Kelsey Krumdieck, launch the new season Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17-18, with a pair of non-conference home games. Whitman hosts Montana Tech at 6 p.m. Friday and Corban College (Salem, Ore.) the next day at 4 p.m.
Ferenz and her coaching staff, which includes Washburn and Higgins as first-year assistants, are still sorting out possible player combinations, a process that might extend well into the season. "The past few years we’ve had a line-up that did not change a lot," Ferenz says. "This year, with this group, we could be playing with different combinations at different times. All of the returning players will see a lot of minutes, especially early in the season. The first-year players are a good group, and we’ll see what happens with them as the season goes along."
Patneaude, a senior co-captain, is the most experienced of the returning Missionaries, and arguably the team’s most accomplished player. The versatile 5-foot-10 guard earned Honorable Mention All-Northwest Conference honors last season, averaging 12 points and five rebounds per game. She also led the team in steals. Two years earlier, in her first season at Whitman, Patneaude nabbed All-NWC First-Team honors.
"Katie has started for us since midway through her first season, and she’s had a very good career," Ferenz said. "She does a lot of things well. She’s been having great practices, helping run the show, and doing all the little things a senior is supposed to do. She’s going to have a good year."
Patneaude has played on the wing or as a shooting guard the past two seasons, after having spent part of her first season at the point guard slot. "Playing the point is where we need Katie this season," Ferenz said. "She needs to score and play the point, which is asking a lot, but it’s something she expects and I know will handle well."
Krumdieck, a 6-foot junior forward, looks to build on her sophomore season, when she averaged 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds as a starter. "We’re counting on Kelsey to score more for us this season," Ferenz said. "She has quick moves, and she scores as well with her left hand as with her right. She’s also a solid step-out shooter with a range out to about 17 feet."
Krumdieck is also becoming a better passer out of the low post, Ferenz said. "Kelsey is seeing the whole floor now. She has high expectations for herself this season, and that’s good. We need her to step up and have a strong season."
Sarah Nicholes, a 5-foot-7 shooting guard, is the other senior co-captain. She played limited minutes a year ago, but her stock has continued to rise during early workouts. "Sarah has been playing as well as she ever has," Ferenz says. "More importantly, she’s the kind of player that a good program can’t get along without. She’s always positive, works so hard and does everything right. She gives us great maturity and great senior leadership, and she will do whatever it takes to help her team win."
Nicholes is the kind of player who makes her teammates better, Ferenz adds. "The other day in practice, people kept getting shot after shot after shot. We stepped back a bit and realized that Sarah was the reason. She was nailing every screen angle just perfectly."
Shea Morrissey, a 5-foot-8 senior guard, is back at Whitman this year playing in a reserve role the past two seasons at Humboldt State, an NCAA Div. II school in Arcata, Calif. She played her first college season at Whitman, averaging 5.9 points in 16 minutes off the bench.
"Shea is a good competitor with good basketball skills," Ferenz said. "She brings more maturity and toughness to the team. She also can play both guard positions. She played the point in high school and for her club team, and she played it some for us three years ago."
The other juniors on the roster, in addition to Krumdieck, are Emily Shubin, a 5-foot-10 forward, and Kristina Francis, a 5-foot-7 guard.
Shubin, who played her prep ball at Bellevue (Wash.) High School, played her first season of college basketball for the Missionaries last winter. She transferred to Whitman after playing two seasons of lacrosse at the University of Southern California and Santa Clara University. Her start to last season was delayed a bit by a broken ankle.
"Emily kept working and by January was able to give us a nice spark," Ferenz said. She played in 16 games, averaging 12.7 minutes, 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds.
"What Emily has back this season is her feel for the game," Ferenz said. "Last winter was more of a struggle for her because she hadn’t played in two years. Her rebounding is stronger now because her timing is back, and her defense is stronger because she’s reacting less and anticipating more. Those are the intangibles you tend to lose when you aren’t playing regularly."
Starting the season healthy is another plus for Shubin, Ferenz said. "Emily came back in great shape. Her scoring is getting better, but the strongest part of her game is her rebounding. She’s very aggressive and effective on the boards."
As a sophomore last season, Francis played in all 25 games, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game in a reserve role. She averaged four points, two rebounds and nearly two assists per outing.
"Kristina came back this fall with a good, strong focus, and she’s off to a great start in practices," Ferenz said. "We’ll use her solely as a shooting guard. What’s nice about her game is that she’s an excellent passer, especially into the low post. She has a good shot of her own, and she does a good job feeding the ball into the post."
Whitman’s sixth returning veteran is 5-foot-10 guard/forward Kalla Vavra, the team’s only sophomore. "Kalla has had problems with her back, and she didn’t get to play a lot of minutes last season," Ferenz says. "Her back is still not great, but right now she’s doing okay."
Vavra has the ability to play three positions, and she may see some time at point guard, Ferenz says. "She’s a very good ball handler. She makes good passes, and she’s making good decisions at the offensive end. She’s also shooting the ball pretty well."
The most talented and experienced players in the first-year class are Michelle Krall, a 5-foot-10 guard/forward from Poway, Calif., and Hilary White, a 5-foot-9 guard/forward who played at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif. "Both of them have played a lot of basketball," Ferenz says. "They are polished players."
Krall has played at every position from point guard to strong forward, Ferenz says. "She’s a very well rounded player, and she’s going to play a lot for us. She has great ball-handling skills, good court vision and a nice shooting touch. When she’s on the floor, we have a player strong enough to go get a rebound and then turn and bring the ball up the court herself."
White honed her skills in an especially strong high school program, Ferenz says. "Hilary is deceptive. You don't notice her steps out and hits a couple of three-pointers, and then she’s driving past you on the baseline. I like the way she plays offensively. She’s not in a hurry, she doesn’t rush things and she doesn’t make poor decisions. She’s going to be a good player for us."
Another of the first-year players is Ellen Vertatschitsch, a 5-foot-9 forward from Issaquah, Wash., and the younger sister of Laura Vertatschitsch. "Ellen is a totally different player from her sister, but the things they have in common are their competitiveness and toughness. Ellen loves the physical part of the game. She likes to mix it up."
The younger Vertatschitsch missed good parts of her junior and senior high school years with knee injuries. "Ellen has still played a lot of basketball, and she’s smart," Ferenz says.
The first-year class also includes two players from opposite ends of the United States. Dawna Mello, a 5-foot-5 point guard, played at Hawaii’s Hilo High school, while 5-foot-11 post player Heather Welch played at Vermont’s Thetford Academy.
"Dawna has also played a lot of basketball," Ferenz says. "In addition to high school ball, she played for the Big Island All-Stars, a club team. She’s a solid player who’s getting better every day in practice."
While less experienced on the basketball floor, Welch is strong and athletic, Ferenz says. "Heather has great hands, she’s quick to the ball and she has great instincts for rebounding. If you don’t block her out, she gets to the rebound."
Welch has more to learn than her first-year Missionary teammates, Ferenz says. "She played at a small high school, and she didn’t play on the club circuit. So she hasn’t played against a lot of kids who are as strong and athletic as she is. She has a lot to learn, but she’s handling it well. She has a great work ethic, and she’s willing to spend extra time in the gym, working on her game."
This year’s first-year class "reminds me in some ways of four years ago when Wasburn, Higgins and Vertatschitsch came to Whitman," Ferenz says. "This year’s group has done very well so far, but they don’t have the option of playing like freshmen. If they do, it could be a long season. They need to play like they’ve been here for awhile because we don’t have anywhere else to go for depth."
After this weekend’s season openers, the Missionaries hit the road for a Nov. 22 game at Warner Pacific in Portland. That will be Whitman’s last non-conference test before it returns home to open NWC play on Dec. 1-2 against Lewis & Clark and Pacific.
Lewis & Clark returns all of its starters from a year ago and is picked to finish third this season, according to a poll of conference coaches. The poll picks Pacific Lutheran to win it all and tabs Puget Sound as the runner-up.
The Missionaries, who tied for third last year with a 10-6 conference record, are picked to place seventh this season.
After its first weekend of NWC play, Whitman will return to non-conference play for the rest of December.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information,
(509) 527-5902; firstname.lastname@example.org