WALLA WALLA, Wash. – With a whopping 11 seniors on his roster, including two players who earned all-conference honors a year ago, Whitman College men’s soccer coach Mike Washington has high hopes for the season ahead.
“With the players we have returning, and the work they’ve done in the off-season, I believe we’re going to have a good fall,” Washington says. “And that’s not just a one-way coaching expectation. The players have high expectations for this season as well.”
Whitman, which opens its season Friday at NAIA-affiliated Westminster College, got off to a quick start last fall, winning six of its first nine games. That included victories in three of its first four Northwest Conference contests.
But back-to-back 1-0 losses at Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran, followed by a 2-1 overtime setback at Whitworth, sent the Missionaries tumbling back toward the .500 mark. Two more 1-0 NWC heart-breakers at the end of the season left Whitman with final records of 10-9-1 overall and 6-7-1 in conference.
“It’s not as if we were getting killed last year,” Washington says. “We were one goal away from winning several more games than we did. We have much of our team back with another year of experience and maturity under its belt. Their confidence and expectations have grown.”
After seeing his squad miss a fourth-place NWC finish by a single point in 2007, Washington says one of the top three conference spots is within reach this season.
“We did a good job of setting the tempo in games last year, and we want to continue to improve in that area," he says. "Plus, we need to eliminate the silly little mistakes that have hurt us at times. It’s not possible to concede easy goals to strong teams and still win. There will be a lot of one-goal games decided by who makes mistakes. We have to minimize our mistakes, keep games close and give ourselves a chance to win.”
In a recent preseason coaching poll, Whitman was tabbed for fourth place behind Whitworth, Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound. “This is a good conference with good coaching,” Washington says. “All of the teams are going to be difficult. We just have to do the right things at the right times.”
Look for Whitman’s offense, as it did a year ago, to revolve around Stephen Phillips, a 6-foot-1 senior who bounces between midfield and one of the forward spots. In his second year as a team captain, Phillips is coming off a junior campaign in which his 12 goals and three assists made him the second-leading scorer in the NWC. He earned first-team all-conference and all-region honors.
“I look at Stephen and he seems to get stronger each year,” Washington says. “He’s worked hard at putting on additional muscle. He’s very strong and dangerous in a lot of different ways.”
Still, Washington is hopeful that a more diversified Whitman offense will show itself this fall. “We expect a lot of teams to mark Stephen more closely this season, which should free up his teammates. Instead of Stephen carrying so much of the load, we want to spread the scoring wealth around a little bit more. I’d like to see more balance.”
Washington sees scoring potential in a number of players. “Cole Rathjen, one of our seniors, is back after a two-year absence and brings a lot of pace and speed to the field." Todd Wallenius and Jasper Lipton, two 6-foot-1 juniors, are back after booting three goals apiece last season. “Todd worked very hard in the off-season, and he and Jasper Lipton give us strength and size up front.”
Seniors Marc Nabelek and Jerreh Badgie are two more scoring threats. “Marc has scored goals for us in the past, and Jerreh is very strong with very good break-away speed. If he can play with more consistency, there is no doubt that Jerreh could have a break-out season.”
Sophomore Conner Bottomly and junior Jordan Droppert show scoring potential from the midfield, Washington says. “Conner is a little banged up right now and probably 10 days away from getting back on the field."Greg Phillips, a senior and Stephen’s older brother, is changing his focus as a returning starter in the midfield. “We’d like Greg to be more of a defensive presence in the midfield,” Washington says. “We want him to anchor the midfield defensively and help shape the type of game we play.”
Adding more experienced depth to the midfield are seniors Simon Quay and Jason Shon, junior Sam Chasan and sophomore Matt Manley.
“Simon has had a few injuries off and on, but we’re hoping he can bounce back and contribute more this season,” Washington says. “Jason Shon is back after missing a season on foreign study. He’s a good leader and another hard worker with good technical skills.”
Both Chasan and Manley are prime examples of the many players who worked hard in the off-season to strengthen their fitness and skills, Washington said. “I can’t say enough about how hard this team has worked in the off-season.”
Washington has a quartet of seniors ready to man the defensive backline. Brett Axelrod, an athletic 6-foot-1 goalkeeper, is back for his fourth season as a starter. He registered four shutouts last fall while limiting eight other opponents to a single goal, and he was named to the All-NWC Second Team. “Brett is strong and quick and without a doubt one of the best keepers in the conference,” Washington says.
Returning starters at defender spots are 6-foot-3 Kevin Sigley in the middle and Mike McKenzie and Joe Johnson on the outside. “Our senior defenders are experienced and talented,” Washington says. “Add Cooper Crosby, who was phenomenal for us last fall as a freshman, and we have a very solid group in the back. Cooper has continued to improve and is a better player than he was a year ago.”
John Fleming, a 6-foot-2 sophomore defender, is nursing an injury to start the season. “John is tall and strong and a very calm player with good technical skills,” Washington says. “He’s someone who could play in the midfield if he was needed there. We just hope that he's able to get healthy.”
With sophomore Nic McDonald injured and out for the season, 6-foot-2 sophomore Tim Shu will serve as Axelrod’s backup in goal. “Tim has good size and is very steady,” Washington says. “Nothing seems to faze him. We hope to get him some minutes on the field before the conference games start.”
The six freshmen rounding out Whitman’s roster will stay on campus when the Missionaries leave Friday on what amounts to a rugged three-game road trip. After opening at Westminster, Whitman stays in Salt Lake to play Dixie State on Sunday before stopping on the way home for a Monday game at Northwest Nazarene. Both Dixie State and NNU are NCAA Div. II schools.
Two freshmen who might see the most minutes this season are midfielders Sam Freedman (Bainbridge Island, Wash.) and Brian Percival (Seattle). “Sam is very quick, left-footed and very coachable,” Washington says. “Brian Percival is the same kind of player, although his right leg is his strong side.”
Stefan Wheat (Olympia, Wash.) and Jamie Muldoon (Billings, Mont.) will play as outside defenders, while Jordan Thomas (Port Orchard, Wash.) and Nathan Ord (Juneau, Alaska) may have the versatility to play more than one position.
Now in his 11th season, Washington gives his 2008 club the highest marks when it comes to hard work, dedication and leadership.
“We’ve had good athletes before, but I don’t know that our leadership has ever been better than it is this fall,” Washington says. “When you look at both the physical and mental parts of the game, this is the probably the best and certainly the deepest senior class we’ve ever had.
“But it’s not just the seniors. Even the younger players have very good focus. Cooper Crosby is only a sophomore but he’s going to be an incredible leader. They all want the same thing. They want to win.”
CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; email@example.com