Inexperienced Whitman women not about to lower expectations

Monday, Nov 12, 2012

team photo

WALLA WALLA — If Whitman College can keep its head above water until January, women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz believes her Missionaries can once again contend for a postseason playoff berth and a so-far elusive ticket to the NCAA Division III national tournament.

“It won’t be easy, but finishing in the top four in our conference and going back to the playoffs is a very realistic goal,” said Ferenz, who is beginning her 12th season at the Missionary helm. “I would be disappointed if we didn’t get into the top four, but we have a lot of work to do. The talent is there, but we can’t rely on what we were last year.”

The Missionaries logged a 16-10 record a year ago. They tied for third place in the Northwest Conference at 12-4 and lost to Lewis & Clark 69-64 in the first round of the league playoffs.

It was Whitman’s fourth appearance in the playoffs in the last seven years. But on each occasion the Missionaries were knocked out in the first round.

Whitman’s best opportunity to qualify for nationals came in 2004 when the Whits tied University of Puget Sound for the conference crown as each team finished with 13-3 records. There were no playoffs that year, and UPS was awarded the national tournament berth based on a coin flip.

“We tied for the league championship, and we were tied in every single tie-breaker,” Ferenz recalled. “So they flipped a coin and UPS won the toss. That was the impetus to bring back the conference playoffs a couple of years later.”

Last year’s team was led by Jenele Peterson, a 5-foot-7 senior guard from Redondo Beach, Calif., who led Whitman in scoring (14.6 points per game), assists (4.5) and steals (1.5). She finished her career No. 4 on Whitman’s all-time scoring chart, earned all-Northwest Conference first-team honors for a second straight year and is now playing professionally in Gottingen, Germany.

“She is one of the best players in the history of our program,” Ferenz said of Peterson.

Two other key seniors — former Wa-Hi Blue Devils Anna Forge and Jennifer Keyes — also graduated last spring. But it is the loss of another Peterson that is causing Ferenz the most angst as she reshapes her team.

Forge, a 5-10 guard, and Keyes, a 5-6 guard, were two of the team’s key reserves. Forge led the team in blocked shots with 26, ranked third in steals, fourth in assists and was a strong defensive rebounder. Keyes led the Whits with 37 3-point baskets and averaged six points per game off the bench.

Ferenz had the entire recruiting season to replenish her graduated seniors. But when Kelly Peterson, a 5-8 guard from Huntington Beach, Calif., was forced to forgo her senior season for academic reasons, it caught the coach off guard.

“We found out over the summer that Kelly wouldn’t be with us, and by then, to be honest, we were done recruiting,” Ferenz said. “There’s only so much you can do.

“Kelly is in school,” Ferenz explained. “But she’s taking an academic overload because she is trying to get into med school. She just couldn’t squeeze in the time to play basketball, too.”

Kelly Peterson started in the Whitman backcourt alongside Janele Peterson. She was the team’s second-leading scorer with an 8.4 average, ranked second in 3-point baskets, third in assists and fourth in steals.

“What it does,” Ferenz said, “is it makes us very young again. With just two seniors, the bulk of our roster is sophomores and juniors. And we are especially inexperienced at the guard spots.”

Emilie Gilbert

And what worries Ferenz the most is that her team plays two important NWC games before the season is a month old, and that may not be enough time to get her inexperienced group up to speed. Whitman entertains Pacific Lutheran University of Nov. 30 and hosts University of Puget Sound Dec. 7.

“They are both home games, and you’ve just got to win at home to compete in the conference,” Ferenz said. “Those games are so important, and we need to be ready for them.

“We have a nice core group back. They understand and are working hard, but it’s a matter of how quickly we can come together. I think we have a chance to be pretty good, but our best basketball may still be a long ways ahead of us.”

The two seniors on the squad are Mary Madden, a 5-11 forward from Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Emilie Gilbert, a 5-7 guard from Bellevue, Wash., who won’t join the team until after her cross country season is complete. Gilbert is entered in the Nov. 10 NCAA Division III West Regional meet in Independence, Ore., and she’s likely to qualify once again for the National Championships Nov. 17 in Terre Haute, Ind.

“She’s not with us yet,” Ferenz said of Gilbert. “She always joins us late, and where she fits in we don’t know yet. She’s been a backup at point guard or our two guard position.

“But she’s a smart player who has played behind some very good guards her whole career, behind Janele, one of the best we have ever had. In the bigger picture, she gives us another body who can play, and that helps.”

Gilbert appeared in 12 games last season scored eight points and grabbed 18 rebounds over 77 minutes of playing time. She was also credited with four assists, two steals and one blocked shot.

Madden, on the other hand, started 25 of 26 games for the Missionaries and was a key contributor. She was third on the team with a 7.5 scoring average and second in rebounding with 4.5 boards per game. She also shot 44 percent from the field and led the Missionaries at the free-throw line at 88 percent.

“She has always been pretty solid for us,” Ferenz said of Madden. “She is one of our most well-rounded players. She will play a forward spot for us, she’s a team captain and doing a great job there. She’s just solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

However, Madden’s role will change slightly, Ferenz said.

“We are moving her to a little different position, moving her out a little bit from the basket,” Ferenz said. “She’s doing everything you want from a senior, and she seems healthy this year after battling a knee injury the last couple of seasons.”

Mary Madden

Four juniors, five sophomores and a pair of freshmen round out Ferenz’ 13-player roster. Of that group, juniors Tiffani Traver (Oregon City, Ore.) and Meghan White (Huntington Beach, Calif.) are considered returning starters and junior Sarah Anderegg (Interlake High, Redmond, Wash.) saw extensive minutes in a reserve role last season.

Traver, a 5-8 guard, averaged six points a game, was second on the team in assists and steals and third in rebounding average.

“She’s one of our better shooters and defenders,” Ferenz said of Traver. “And she has really worked hard in the weight room and has gotten stronger. We lost our top two 3-point shooters, so Tiffani has to pick up that slack as one of our primary shooters.”

White is a 6-foot post who led all Missionary rebounders last year with a 7.4 average. She also averaged 6.3 points per game.

“She started most of the games last year,” Ferenz said of White. “She came back in great shape and we need her to lead us in rebounding again and be more of a scorer than she was last year.”

Anderegg started just four games last season but played 340 minutes and was fourth on the team in scoring with a 7.0 average. And at 6-2, she is the tallest player on the team.

“She played a lot last year, one of the first players off the bench, but she’s not a true back-to-the-basket post player,” Ferenz said of Anderegg. “We play her away from the hoop, and she has to be more of a scorer and more consistent in the way she plays this year. We need her to play like a starter, and so far she has responded very well.”

The fourth junior is Marah Alindogan, a 5-6 guard from Bishop Blanchet High in Everett, Wash. As a sophomore she saw 57 minutes of action in 14 games off the bench.

“She was our backup point guard last year,” Ferenz said. “And because we have a couple of others who can play the point, we are moving her to the two guard. She’s shooting the ball well in practice, and she pressures the ball on defense and makes things happen. She will surprise some people in our conference this year.

Tiffani Traver

“Marah has been a role player for us, and we are hoping she can take on a bigger role this year.

Two of the five sophomores — Heather Lovelace, a 6-0 post from McKinley, Calif., and Hallie Buse, a 5-10 forward out of Timberline High in Boise, Idaho — saw substantial playing time last year. A third, 5-11 forward Katie Gray, who prepped at Bishop Minogue High in Reno, Nev., played minimally.

Lovelace played in 24 of the team’s 26 games and averaged four points per game. Buse saw 146 minutes of playing time over 18 games and averaged 2.1 points per game. Gray played 19 minutes over 10 appearances.

“Heather had a solid freshman year,” Ferenz said of Lovelace. “She had some big games for us. She’s a good back-to-the-basket post player who has some good moves, and she’s getting to be more consistent with rebounding and defense. She will be a more physical player this year.

“Hallie came on during the second part of the season,” the coach said of Buse. “Her minutes went up as the season went on, and she came back this season ready to go. She’s a good shooter, and she’s a long lefty, which can be a little deceptive. She can play the three for us.”

Gray is another left-hander who will be in the mix at the post or forward positions, Ferenz said.

“She’s probably more of a forward than a back-to-the-basket player, but she’s solid,” Ferenz said. “Particularly offensively. She has a nice shot and some nice moves.”

The final two sophomores are 5-10 forward Hailey Ann Maeda (Punahou School, Kailua, Hawaii) and 5-7 guard Heather Johns (Southridge High, West Richland). Maeda enrolled at Whitman during the second semester and didn’t join the basketball team until spring practice while Johns is a transfer from St. Martin’s University who hasn’t played since the 2010-11 season.

“Hailey Ann was a very good high school player who played for a state championship,” Ferenz said of Maeda. “She’s a very good rebounder who plays bigger than she really is. She’s still getting her legs under her, but we like what we see.”

Ferenz tried to recruit Johns out of high school after she became the Suns’ all-time scoring leader but lost out to St. Martin’s.

Alyssa Maine

“She was one of the first guards off the bench at St. Martin’s,” Ferenz said. “But after her freshman year she contacted us and applied. And we’re very glad to have her.

“She’s still getting her game legs after taking a year off, but she will bring some offense to our team. Her understanding and instincts are excellent, and when she gets comfortable she will be very good.”

The only true freshmen on the roster are 5-8 guard Hailey McDonald (Lincoln High, Portland, Ore.) and Alyssa Maine (Freeman High, Spokane) — and Ferenz has high hopes for both players.

McDonald’s biggest challenge so far is a series of nagging injuries that have limited her practice time. Maine, who played on two state championship teams and in a third state championship game in high school, also played golf for the Missionaries until recently.

“Hailey is a player who can swing between the guard and forward positions,” Ferenz said of McDonald. “She is big and strong and has quick feet. But she’s had this problem with Achilles tendonitis.

“Alyssa is very skilled,” Ferenz said. “She’s very smart, a good shooter and shows great composure out on the court. You would never know she is a freshman.

“We’ve been hit hard at the guard positions, so she will be able to step in as a freshman and help us at the point and also a little at the two guard.”

The Missionaries open their season with three consecutive games on the road leading up to the worrisome home opener against PLU. Whitman tips off the season at the University of La Verne in La Verne, Calif., Nov. 16, and the following night the Whits play at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, Calif. Whitman then travels to Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash., for a Nov. 24 game before hosting the Lutes on the final night in November.

“It’s a goofy schedule, not one of my favorites,” Ferenz said, noting that Whitman plays two more non-league games before the UPS clash and two more non-leaguers after the Loggers before settling into the NWC schedule. “It’s the product of having to move some games around at the last minute.”

But Ferenz and her players are eager to get things started.

“You take every season and make the most of it,” the coach said. “Our Achilles heel is that we are low on experience, but that’s our team and you never know what the season is going to deliver. We have had years with a lot of experience and not done as well, and there is something to be said for youth and enthusiasm.

“I’m just hoping we grow up quickly enough to have a great season.”