Missionary Men's Basketball Eager to Take that Next Step

Monday, Nov 12, 2012

team huddle photo

WALLA WALLA — There may not be another David Michaels on the immediate horizon at Whitman College, but that in no way lessons the expectations of Missionary men’s head basketball coach Eric Bridgeland.

Heading into his fifth season at Whitman, it’s business as usual for the head coach. And that means there is unfinished business to attend to.

“The best way to describe our program and culture at this point is that we are coming off of the two best back to back seasons in Whitman’s history, and no one involved with our program is particularly happy or satisfied with that,” Bridgeland said.

“There’s a feel within our culture that our work together should take us deeper into March. Our internal leadership is committed to taking the next step.”

thompson
LuQuam Thompson

In 2011, Bridgeland’s third season at the helm, the Missionaries fashioned a 19-8 record and finished second in the Northwest Conference with an 11-5 mark. That season included a memorable come-from-way-behind victory over undefeated and nationally No. 1-ranked Whitworth and a first-round conference playoff victory over Lewis & Clark.  Last year, the Whits were 18-8 overall in 2012, finished second in the conference again at 11-5.

“We lost LuQuam Thompson to a season-ending knee injury on the first day of practice two years ago, and we morphed into a very versatile team that got on a roll. This past season it seemed like we were dealing with a different roster almost daily,” Bridgeland commented, referring to his team’s rash of injuries that included concussions to NWC MVP David Michaels missing 3 conference games, while 2010 Freshman of the Year in the West Region, Josh Duckworth, missing a pair himself.  “We were picked to finish second, and we did. We felt like we could have gone farther, but in both we felt we lacked a consistent style of play and much of that was due to our ever changing roster of healthy bodies.”

If Whitman is to take home the NWC championship, it will have to do it without the services of NWC Player of the Year and Whitman’s first ever All-American, David Michaels. Michaels, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Las Vegas who is now playing professionally in Holland, was a key asset on the 2011 team and an even bigger part of the Missionaries’ 2012 success. 

 “David was special down the stretch last season and literally put us on his back.  But that was then and this is now.  In a lot of senses, we were a one-man offensive show at the end of last year.  Every one of our returners feel like they have something to prove this season.  This year we feel we will be much more balanced, and very deep. We can go 10-12 deep and we don’t lose anything.”

So, exactly who to watch?  “Tough to say”, Bridgeland says.  “On the offensive end, we could be led in scoring by any one of 7 or 8 guys.  Our staff is very excited about this balance.”

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Peter Clark

The balance Bridgeland refers to is apparent on a quick glance at the roster, which features 4 Seniors, 3 Juniors, 4 Sophomores and 3 Freshmen. In total, the Missionaries return 65% of their scoring from last season, and the returning players racked up 75% of the total minutes played.

“The best way to put it,” Bridgeland said, “is that we have a lot of guys who played a lot of minutes who are all back; seven or eight of them, who averaged double-digit minutes.”

Seniors Peter Clark (Sinagua High School, Flagstaff AZ), Drew Raher (St. Ingatius Prep, San Francisco CA), and Ryan Gilkey (Woodinville HS, Woodinville WA), as well as junior LuQuam Thompson (Foss HS, Tacoma WA) were a part of Bridgeland’s first true recruiting class, and the value of their experience in changing the direction of the program cannot be overstated. Since compiling a 12-13 overall record in their first season, this group played a major role in putting together two record-breaking seasons at Whitman in their second and third years, and there is no question they are focused on taking the next step.

A powerful 6-3 wing who isn’t afraid to mix it up inside, Raher led the Northwest Conference in three-point shooting in 2011-2012 by converting at a sizzling 53.7% clip from beyond the arc.  He is also one of Whitman’s most powerful forces in the locker room.

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Drew Raher

“Drew Raher is one of our internal leaders. In addition to his exceptional leadership ability, he shot over 50 percent from 3-point distance last year and is looking as good as he ever has. He’s a lot more mobile. And when you are talking skills, he ‘Wins’, and that is his skill.”

After playing limited minutes in 2011-2012, Gilkey returned to campus with a vengeance, as well as a newfound physique, having put on 25+ pounds of muscle over the summer. “He’s a junior athletically but will graduate this coming spring, so this is his senior year,” Bridgeland said of Gilkey. “He’s now 245 pounds (up from 220 last year) and has done some great work in the weight room. He’s really good on the interior, a great rebounder.”

Thompson, a 5’11” guard, returned from a knee injury that kept him out his entire second year, to start 20 games and average 7.4 points and 2.9 rebounds last season. He was also credited with 29 steals and 51 assists, second most on the team. Possessing exceptional quickness and athleticism at the guard position, Thompson will play a critical role in creating offensive and defensive opportunities in Whitman’s open floor game and pressure defense attack.

“LuQuam was our most consistent player last year in the back court,” Bridgeland said of Thompson. “He has improved his perimeter shot, and is now fully recovered from a knee injury that forced him to miss his entire sophomore season—he is as lightning-quick as ever.”

Clark, a 6-4 sharp-shooting wing, started 23 games and averaged 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds a year ago. He comes into his senior season in the best shape of his career, and with a reputation around the Northwest Conference of being lethal behind the arc.

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Ryan Gilkey

Ignas Pavilonis, the fourth senior on the roster, enters his third season at Whitman after transferring in from Cañada College after his freshman year. Standing at 6-5 and possessing a startlingly quick release as well as NBA-range, he and Clark team to make a potent tandem on the wings. “Pavilonis and Clark are guys who can really, really shoot, but they also have worked hard to develop the ability to put the ball on the ground”, said Bridgeland.

Last season, Whitman got a mid-year boost with the addition of then sophomore Ben Eisenhardt (Bainbridge Island HS, Bainbridge WA), who transferred from NCAA Division I Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The 6-10 forward made an immediate impact, and played well enough to earn All-NWC Honorable Mention honors. This year, Eisenhardt figures to be a force up front as well as on the perimeter, according to Bridgeland.

“Ben is very, very versatile,” he said. “He’s a 6-10 forward who can shoot it and find people. He’s very gifted and plays incredibly hard. It’s very rare to find a 6-10 player who plays as hard as he does, let alone with his advanced skill set.”

Whitman fans will remember junior guard Josh Duckworth (Brentwood School, Los Angeles CA) for a pair of memorable finishes in 2011-2012. Not once, but twice, Duckworth lifted Whitman to victory with a pair of game winning shots in the final seconds of home wins over Linfield and Lewis & Clark.  Bridgeland looks for the 6-2 guard to regain the same poise he had when he was the NCAA West Region Rookie of the Year (2010-2011). “Josh is as good a playmaking guard as there is in our conference,” he said. “He’s a high level defender and very versatile.”

Among the sophomores, 6-3 forward Matt Mounier (Crepsi Carmelite High, Encino, CA) was the most productive as a freshman. Mounier started just once, but he saw a total of 323 minutes, averaged 4.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and contributed 17 assists. “Matt is off to a fantastic start this fall. He’s as competitive a player as we have, and is a high level scorer.  Aside from David (Michaels), we have never seen a player progress as much over one summer as Matt has” said Bridgeland. “We expect he’ll make a significant impact this year.”

Also in the sophomore class are 5-10 guard Clay Callahan (Corvallis HS, Corvallis OR), and 6-3 forward Keenan Durham (O’Dea HS, Seattle WA). “Our whole staff is very excited to coach this group of sophomores,” says Bridgeland. “Clay is a consummate point guard with a knack for setting up his teammates and is one of the most gifted leaders we have in our program. Keenan has added 3 point range to his game, and continues to be one of our hardest workers.”

Three freshmen and one transfer round out the roster as newcomers. 6-1 guard Jackson Clough (Seattle Preparatory School, Seattle WA), 6-0 guard Tochi Oti (Loyola High, Los Angeles CA), and 6-6 forward Evan Martin (Centennial High, Las Vegas NV) join the Missionaries from the high school ranks, while 6-0 guard Dominic Lippi transferred in from NCAA Division I U.C. Davis. They may be new, but it is safe to say that the Whitman coaches are expecting big things from these talented additions.

“We love our freshmen,” Bridgeland said, including Lippi in his assessment of the team’s first-year players. “From a roster and recruiting standpoint, we needed creating ball handlers bad, and we got it in these three. Jackson and Tochi are both very special. They have had great preseasons so far and they can both shoot it and put it on the ground. Dominic has been slowed this preseason with a broken hand, but has recently started to practice.  Dom is as fierce a warrior and as gifted a leader as we have.”

“Evan Martin is kind of in the David Michaels mode,” continues Bridgleand. “He can post up, can shoot and is very versatile.  He improves daily.”

The Missionaries open the season at home Nov. 15 when the University of St. Thomas, (MN), invades Sherwood Center. The Tommies were 22-7 last season and are ranked No. 11 in the NCAA Division III preseason men’s basketball poll. A perennial national power, St. Thomas won the national title in 2011, and will provide the Missionaries with an excellent early season test.  Then it’s off to California for three more non-league games during Thanksgiving break including NCAA Division I UC-Riverside on November 17th. 

Whitman then returns to George Ball Court for an extended stay, with their next 7 games at home, including Texas powerhouse Mary Hardin Baylor on Sunday, November 25th followed by the NWC opening weekend against the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University on December 7th and 8th (click HERE for the complete 2012-2013 schedule).

“Our destination is to play into March.  Our goal is to get a little bit better and a little bit closer daily.  That is about all we are focusing on.”