WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The growing pains were obvious a year ago as first-year coach Eric Bridgeland helped the Whitman College men’s basketball team take its first few steps up the Northwest Conference ladder.
Despite those growing pains, Bridgeland's first campaign last winter saw Whitman finish in sole possession of sixth place for just the second time in the last 15 seasons.
This year, with his squad buoyed by his first real recruiting class, Bridgeland is ready to reach for the upper rungs of that ladder.
| Eric Bridgeland
“Right now the main thing for us is to focus on the process,” Bridgeland says. “We want to get a little bit better each day and be playing our best basketball by late December and early January.
“With the seven new guys and the three we brought in last summer, we're starting from ground zero. We’re making a conscious effort to re-teach everything from our culture as a basketball program to our basics on the basketball floor to our expectations and standards socially and in the classroom.”
Make no mistake, however. Bridgeland wants to win.
“In terms of our conference, if we improve a little bit every day, get better at what we do and stay together, we’ll have a legitimate shot to be there at the end, “ he says. “We’re looking to go win it all. That’s what we’re here to do. If we weren’t shooting that high, it wouldn't be worth putting time towards.
“With this many new players and our program only in its second year, you could take a more cautious approach,” he admits. “But this team has great potential – it just happens to be young.”
A recent poll of NWC coaches has Whitman pegged to place fifth this season, which is where the Missionaries placed a year ago as part of a 9-16 season that included a 5-11 mark in conference games. Had Whitman prevailed in a few of its close losses (three games by six or fewer points), its NWC record could have finished at the .500 mark.
| Brandon Shaw
Despite graduation losses last spring that included scoring whiz Chris Faidley, the Missionary roster is much more talented and deeper than a year ago, Bridgeland says.
“You always hope to get one or two guys in your recruiting class who can play at a very high level," he says. "We have four or five in this recruiting class. We’re more athletic, we’re longer and we’re deeper than we were last year.
“Right now we’re legitimately eight or nine players deep,” Bridgeland adds, “and we’re waiting for two or three other guys to get healthy. We’ve been hit by a few early injuries. Once we are healthy, we should be 10 or 11 deep, and play 10 or 11 guys every game.”
Whitman basketball fans who liked what they saw a year ago can expect more of the same this winter.
“If anything, we’ll be more up-tempo than last year,” Bridgeland says. “We’re built for speed. The best players we can get admitted to Whitman are combo guards and tweeners, and the program is built around them.
“We want to get up and down the floor and utilize their versatility. Speed, versatility and pressure are the three concepts we hang our hats on.”
Don’t be surprised, Bridgeland says, if overall Missionary scoring takes a jump this season.
“Guard penetration is the future of basketball, and it happens to be exciting,” he says. “We have a lot more length and a lot more quickness, depth and shooting. Offensively, we just need to share the ball.
“We’re penetration-based, and we’ll both shoot the 3 and get to the rim. We also have three or four guys who can post up. We have a lot versatility, but we’ll look to get good shots early and run at every opportunity.”
Bridgeland is pleased with the quickness with which players are absorbing the program’s defensive concepts.
“The guys are catching onto what we want to do defensively, and they’re doing it more quickly that we expected. We’ll always look to pick up full and pressure, more so at times than others. We want to dictate the game.”
Bridgeland also likes the camaraderie his team has developed from the outset.
“We have a real brotherhood right now, and that’s a testament to our returning players,” he says. “They’ve made the new guys feel comfortable from the beginning. There’s a great blend between guys competing hard on the floor and then putting their arms around one another off the floor; that’s rare and we seem to have it early.”
This Band of Missionaries is just days away from its season opener, and its first test is stiff one. Whitman heads to Cheney, Wash., next Tuesday, Nov. 17, to battle NCAA Division I Eastern Washington University.
The Missionaries then return home to the George Ball Court in Sherwood Center to host a four-team tournament on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21.
Whitman's Roster -- A Closer Look
Brandon Shaw, a quick and elusive 6-foot-2 sophomore guard with a knack for scoring, is the most talented of the seven returning players on the Missionary roster.
Shaw enjoyed a fine rookie season last winter, averaging 16.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals. He ranked third in the NWC in steals (Faidley was second) and fourth in scoring (Faidley was first).
Shaw collected most of his freshman points with drives into the paint. It isn't what opposing defenders want to hear, but "Brandon has gone from a one-dimensional attacker to someone who has added a solid outside shot," Bridgeland says. "He has a fifth gear in transition and can always push the ball, but he's worked hard on his outside shot.
| Jordan Wheeler
"Brandon could have a special season in our dribble-drive offense. His leadership ability has also grown immensely."
Jordan Wheeler, a 6-foot-2 senior, returns to the Whitman backcourt after averaging 12.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and a team-high 2.9 assists last season.
"Jordan was off to a great start this fall before his hernia operation," Bridgeland says. "We’re looking forward to getting him back in the rotation within the next month. With his leadership and defense, we need to have him on the floor.
"Jordan's leadership is off the charts. He could be a future president -– that’s how talented he is. On the floor, if he focuses on what he can do for his team, he’ll be one of the best guards in the conference."
| Jordan Brandon
Jordan Brandon, a 6-foot-4 forward, is the only other senior on the roster. He averaged 16 minutes off the bench last season with 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
"Jordan is a lunch-pail player," Bridgeland says. "He brings experience, toughness, maturity, focus and good leadership to our young, young group."
Max Adcox, a 6-foot-5 forward, is the only returning junior on the squad. He played 14 minutes per game in a reserve role last season, averaging 2.2 points and 1.5 rebounds.
"Max has gone from being a complimentary role player last season to a significant factor this year," Bridgeland says. "He completely transformed his body over the summer through hard work, running on the track and eating right. He looks phenomenal. He’s much quicker. His shot is better. His hard work has paid off."
As part of his recruiting class, Bridgeland also welcomes two junior transfers into the fold.
Daniel Davidson, a 6-foot-4 forward, is a graduate of Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Wash., who played the last two seasons at Skagit Valley Community College.
Justin Artis, a 6-foot-1 guard, graduated from Tacoma's Foss High School and spent the past two seasons at Olympic College.
"We’re very excited about both of our tranfers," Bridgeland says. "Not only are they fabulous student athletes and great leaders, they both have a high basketball IQ.
| Justin Artis
"Justin and Daniel are mature young men and make for a great blend with our freshmen. Both are very well rounded players, and both will see a lot of time in a lot of different spots."
Davidson earned second-team honors last season in the northern division of the Northwest community college league. He also made the all-academic team and was Co-Male Athlete of the Year at Skagit Valley.
"Daniel can score from anywhere," Bridgeland says. "He’s almost like a big guard who can post up. We’ll use him at virtually every position. His versatility is fantastic.
Artis also earned second-team honors in the community college league last winter while leading Olympic to one of its best seasons (21-8) in years.
"Justin already looks like he’s been in our program for three years," Bridgeland says. "You tell him something one time and it sticks. He can do everything for us. He shoots it, penetrates, guards, boards, hustles, and he gets better every day."
| Peter Clark
Peter Clark, a 6-foot-4 wing from Sinagua High School in Flagstaff, Ariz., tops the freshman class. He led Sinagua to its first-ever outright regional championship last season, earning Player of the Year honors in the Grand Canyon region.
"When I was watching and recruiting Peter last summer, I wrote in my notes that he was a national-level Division II player," Bridgeland says. "That’s exactly what he is. He oozes maturity, leadership and integrity, and he can play.
"Peter's teammates call him The Machine. He’s up at 6:30 in the morning, going through basketball drills. He’s going to challenge Whitman's 3-point records, but he's not just a shooter. He can put the ball on the ground and find open teammates. He’s going to be a special player at Whitman."
LuQuam Thompson, a 5-foot-11 combo guard, led Tacoma's Foss High School to the Class 4A state semifinals last season, earning Narrows League MVP honors in the process.
"Quam is a legitimate Division II or low Division I guy," Bridgeland says. "He brings national-level quickness. He's just a blur in the open court. It’s just a matter of him getting comfortable with where all of his new teammates are going to be.
| LuQuam Thompson
"He’s also worked on his shot over the summer and it looks a lot better, but one defender isn't going to keep him out of the paint. He’s going to be a four-year starter if he keeps bringing it the way he has in practice.
"He also might be the best defensive guard I’ve ever coached at this level. He’s quick, he’s heady and he’s tough. He’s an absolute steal for Whitman."
| Brady Brent
Brady Brent, a 6-foot-6 wing, led Mountain View High School (Bend, Ore.) to an Intermountain League title last season and was named league MVP. He earned Class 5A First-Team All-State honors in basketball and followed that up by winning the state high jump title in the spring.
"Brady is coming on and starting to get comfortable," Bridgeland says. "One of the other coaches in the conference said he’s going to be the best player in the conference by the time he’s a junior. He’s long and versatile and he can shoot it.
"He has a great wingspan. He blocked three shots in our exhibition. He’s so versatile. He’s going to be a handful for other teams for four years. I’m glad he’s here."
| Drew Raher
Drew Raher, a 6-foot-3 forward, earned First-Team All-West Catholic League honors last season at San Francisco's St. Ignatius College Prep.
"In the last eight to 10 years, I haven’t seen anyone play as hard as Drew does on a consistent basis," Bridgeland says. "You look at Quam and he has national-level quickness. You look at Peter and he can shoot it as well as anyone in Division III. Then you look at Drew and he plays so hard that it’s a skill. He plays harder than anyone, and he plays for his teammates. He’s a throwback.
Raher battled for 10 rebounds in 20 minutes on the court in a recent exhibition, Bridgeland says. "With our style of play benefitting the team that works the hardest, Drew sets the bar. There will be games when he’ll blow up. He’ll get 15 rebounds.
"All of our guys play hard, but Drew takes it to a whole new level. He works harder than any human alive today. He works so hard that it’s a skill and a weapon. It's his gift from God. He goes 100 percent every possession, and he's totally selfless. He plays for his teammates."
| Ryan Gilkey
"Ryan won’t be ready to play until January, but he could be best of our freshmen," Bridgeland says. "He hurt both shoulders last season and the summer before that, and his knee also was bothering him. A lot of colleges missed on Ryan. They saw him playing when he was maybe at 50 to 60 percent.
"I saw him when he was 70 to 75 percent, and I thought, if we just get this guy, things will change at Whitman. He's so fundamental and so versatile. You look at him and think post. He can play post, but you can put him on the perimeter and he can shoot and pass.
"It's like Ryan is a creative 6-foot-7 gaurd. He's not crazy quick, but he's very controlled with the ball. He can drive from the outside. He can float and shoot the 3. He's very gifted, and he'll play all over the floor for us."
| David Michaels
Rounding out the roster are three more returning sophomores -- David Michaels, Juan Pablo Alvarez and Nate Stone.
| J.P. Alvarez
Michaels, a 6-foot-7 forward, made the biggest impact of the three last winter. He averaged 18 minutes as a part-time starter, contributing 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
"David is one of those versatile forwards who can play on the perimeter as well as in the low post," Bridgeland says.
"He’s been off to a little bit of a slow start, but we’re hoping David regains the form he had at the end of last season, and then some."
Alvarez, a 6-foot-4 guard-forward, also started some games last season, averaging 14.5 minutes, 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds.
| Nate Stone
"J.P. improved his shot over the summer," Bridgeland says. "We’re looking for him to catch and shoot, or make plays off the catch. He’ll be in the rotation somewhere."
Stone, a 6-foot-4 forward, played in 17 games as a freshman, averaging six minutes off the bench.
"Nate has great hands and is a good rebounder, and he’s incredibly smart," Bridgeland says. "He’s always in the right spot, and that’s very important with our offensive and defensive concepts.
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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; email@example.com