WALLA WALLA, Wash. - Should Santa happen to ask, all that Whitman College women's basketball coach Michelle Ferenz really wants for Christmas is a healthy team by the start of Northwest Conference play.

With non-conference games starting later this week, the Missionaries are not "even close to where we need to be," Ferenz says. "Right now we are facing challenges we typically do not face to begin a season.

         Michelle Ferenz

"After starting practices last month with seven players on the floor, we now have nine. It has been a slow process and our best case scenario is to get to 100 percent by the start of conference games in early January."

Whitman kicks off its season this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, with its annual Kim Evanger Raney Memorial Classic.

For that tournament, Ferenz figures to be without senior standout Michelle Krall and sophomore sharpshooter Jennifer Keyes, two players still rehabbing from injuries, and one of her three first-year players, Emilie Gilbert, who will be running this weekend at the NCAA Division III national cross country championships.

Gilbert and her Whitman cross country teammates qualified last Saturday by placing second at regional meet. "We hope for the best for our cross country team," Ferenz says. "It's a great opportunity, and I know Emilie is excited about it."

Jenele Peterson, a junior guard and returning starter, missed the first few weeks of workouts, adding to Whitman's patchwork start, while she completed a study-abroad stint in New Zealand.

"Jenele is not quite herself yet but she'll get there as quickly as anyone," Ferenz says. "She's in shape, but not basketball shape. At least she's been in the program for a few years and knows the system and what she needs to do."

In a perfect world, Ferenz adds, "we would have had all 12 players on the floor on the first day of practice. As it was, we didn't have enough healthy bodies to play five-on-five in practice.

"With the number of returning players we have, we should be ahead of the game at this point. Instead, we're behind and doing our best to catch up."

On a more positive note, Ferenz says, "our kids play well together. We aren't going to be the most athletic team, or the deepest, in our conference, but we have enough talent and depth to do well if we can get everyone healthy."

Ferenz wants her players to look back at Whitman's 2005-06 team, which also started its season with a similar number of injuries. "That year was worse because we played two conference games in December.

                            Hilary White

"The kids on that team were hard-nosed about it and made the best of the situation until we got more healthy. They worked their way through it and we made the conference playoffs that season. Those kids stayed focused." 

Last winter, Whitman won five of its last six games to finish in a third-place tie in the conference standings.

A recent poll of NWC coaches has the Missionaries pegged to finish third again this season. Defending conference and national champion George Fox is picked to repeat with Puget Sound tabbed for second.

"Fox graduated its starting post player and lost one of its first-year guards -- the National Freshman of the Year -- but it returns plenty of talent," Ferenz says. "The teams that do well in this conference are those with talent and depth, and that is what Fox has been able to do."

Ferenz also expects Puget Sound, Pacific and Whitworth to field good teams while other schools are more of a mystery.

"We just need to stay focused on what we can control," she says. "We need to keep getting better and keep getting more healthy. We've got a tough non-conference schedule, so we'll find out what we're made of, right from the get-go." 

Whitman's Roster -- A Closer Look

Hilary White, Michelle Krall and Dawna Mello are the three seniors on the Missionary roster.

White, a 5-foot-9 guard, was named to the All-NWC First Team last season after leading Whitman in scoring at 13.3 points per game. She was the fourth-leading scorer in the conference and averaged 5.1 rebounds per game. She was sixth in the NWC in both steals and 3-point baskets per game. 

              Michelle Krall

In one game last season, White combined a career-high 25 points with 10 rebounds. 

"Hilary had a very good junior season and she is in great shape," Ferenz says. "She’s good to go and playing with confidence. She’s taken her defense up a notch as well. She understands that for us to be successful, she needs to have another good year."

Krall, a 5-foot-10 forward, averaged 10.2 points and 5.3 rebounds last season.

"Michelle got off to a great start last season until her knee slowed her down," Ferenz says. "She didn’t miss many games, but it got to the point where she couldn’t practice, and her play became more inconsistent. She’s had a lot of time off this fall, a lot of rehab time, and it's gone well. It’s just going to take her some time to get back into the rhythm of playing.

"If we can keep Michelle healthy, especially during the conference season, she is definitely a difference maker. She’s one of the smartest players we have in terms of knowing how to execute and where she's supposed to be the floor. She’s a tough competitor and good defensive player."

Krall, who was voted to the NWC Second Team as a sophomore, was named NWC Student Athlete of the Week last December after she earned MVP honors at a four-team tournament in Spokane. She averaged 18.5 points and 6.0 in her two tourney games. 

"Michelle can shoot the ball," Ferenz says. "She had a couple of big scoring games last season before being limited in practice."

       Dawna Mello

Mello, a 5-foot-5 guard, played in all 24 games last season, mostly in a reserve role, while averaging 13.3 minutes and 2.1 points per game.

"Dawna also came back in great shape, and she's had a lot of reps in practice," Ferenz says. "She played very well in our first two scrimmages, and we need her to be a consistent contributor this season.

"Dawna has always played her role really well without worrying about firing off a lot of shots. This year we’re wanting her to expand her role and be more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. She can shoot the ball and is a good penetrator."

Ferenz also expects more contributions this season from her four juniors -- Jenele Peterson, Rebecca Sexton, Anna Forge and Jessica Brice

"That's four very good players in our junior class," she says. "They expect to make bigger contributions this year, and that's what we expect. As juniors, they need to play with confidence and maturity. They have a much better understanding of our program and how tough the conference is."

     Jenele Peterson

Peterson, a 5-foot-7 guard, made the All-NWC Second Team last season while averaging 10.3 points, 3.7 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game. She led the NWC in free throw shooting, making 81 of 93 attempts (87.1 percent). She also was third in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in assists per game.

"Jenele has always done a great job setting up her teammates, but she needs to take on more of the scoring load this season," Ferenz says. "She likes to put the ball on the floor and beat people, but we also want her to be more of a consistent outside shooting threat. She's a good shooter. She just needs to be more aggressive in taking shots when they are there."

       Rebecca Sexton

Sexton, a 6-foot-3 senior, earned All-NWC Honorable Mention recognition last season while averaging 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds. She shot 57.7 percent from the floor, the second-best mark in the conference, and she blocked 30 shots, the fourth-highest total in the NWC.

Sexton's highlights last season included a 22-point effort against College of Idaho and an impressive double-double (16 rebounds, 15 points) against Corban.

        Anna Forge

"Rebecca came into her own last season after playing behind a couple of seniors in her first year," Ferenz says. "She has great hands and good moves in the low post. She has very good offensive skills for a 6-foot-3 player. That can be hard for other teams to stop."

Forge, a 5-foot-10 guard, averaged 18 minutes off the bench last season and was one of the team's leading rebounds. She averaged 5.4 boards and the same number of points.

"Anna is probably our best all-around athlete, and in terms of her physical condition, she is a workout demon," Ferenz says. "She was our spark plug last season. She came off the bench with the ability to really make things happen, both offensively and defensively.

       Jessica Brice

"What we’re asking her to do this year is be more consistent. We want her to play with the maturity and consistency that allows us to keep her on the floor. I’ve seen some maturation in Anna's game. If she plays consistently at a high level, that will help us tremendously. She’s been very focused and has made improvements in her offense."

Brice, a 5-foot-10 forward, is concentrating on basketball alone this year, after playing both volleyball and basketball a year ago, when she averaged 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds off the bench.

"Jessica came back to campus in great shape," Ferenz says. "She’s battling Hilary for time at the 3-spot, and she's doing a good job. She played really well in our last scrimmage. She continues to get better.

"Jess played some post for us last season but is working hard now on her perimeter game."

Jennifer Keyes and Kirsten Vaculik are the two sophomores on the squad.

     Jennifer Keyes

Keyes, a 5-foot-6 shooting guard, averaged 6.8 points per off the bench last season while topping the team in total 3-point shooting, making 44 of 109 attempts (40.4 percent). She erupted for 28 points against Walla Walla University, making eight 3-pointers to tie Whitman's single-game record.

At present, however, Keyes is coming off a month-long stint on the shelf because of an ankle injury. "She got the protective boot off last week, and now she's facing a long road back in terms of conditioning," Ferenz says.

"We hope to have her back to full speed by conference. If there’s any way to beat that timeline, Jenn will figure it out. She’s a tough competitor and can't wait to get back on the floor."

Whitman got off to a quick start last season, winning its first eight games. After slumping midway through the conference season, the Missionaries finished strong with Keyes making good contributions down the stretch.

"Jenn's play over the last six or seven games was really a catalyst behind our strong finish," Ferenz says. "We struggled mid-season and she helped pull us out of that.

     Kirsten Vaculik

Vaculik, a 6-foot-3 center, played limited minutes last season but adds more size to the Missionary roster. "Depending on what personnel are on the floor, Kirsten can help us," Ferenz says. "She has great length and size and moves really well.

"Kirsten has also worked hard on her strength and playing the game at a faster pace. Her moves and shooting touch have improved."

      Mary Madden

The three first-year players on the roster are Mary Madden, Kelly Peterson and Emilie Gilbert.

"All three have a great work ethic and high basketball IQ," Ferenz says. "They have played a ton of basketball, and they work hard. They are basketball savvy."

Madden and Peterson were teammates at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Peterson, a 5-foot-8 guard, was a four-year varsity captain and starter at Edison. She made the all-league first team as a junior and senior, after making the second team in her first two seasons.

"We ask our guards to make a lot of reads, so Kelly is still learning our offense," Ferenz says. "She is getting a feel for when she should shoot in our offense, and when she shouldn't, but the important thing is that she can shoot. She can also put the ball on the floor and finish."

     Kelly Peterson

Peterson adds a strong presence on defense and on the backboards. "Kelly is tough," Ferenz says. "She rebounds well from the guard spot, and she is a tough defender."

Madden, a 5-foot-10 forward, is "further ahead defensively than she is offensively, and her rebounding is strong," Ferenz says. "She's very coachable. She has really helped our rebounding game because she rarely misses a block out. She can play a physical game and is not easily intimidated."

Madden played on the Edison varsity in each of her high school seasons, earning second-team all-league honors as a junior and senior.

      Emilie Gilbert

Gilbert, a 5-foot-7 combo guard, earned All-KingCo Conference 3A first-team honors last winter while playing for Bellevue (Wash.) High School. She was her team's MVP and made the all-tournament team at the Surf N' Slam High School Classic in San Diego, Calif.  

"We're looking forward to getting Emilie back from the cross country team," Ferenz say. "She's in good shape, but she will have a lot of catching up to do, and she knows that. 

"Emilie is a good athlete who can handle the ball. By conference, we hope to have her in the guard rotation and feeling comfortable. She adds a lot of speed to our backcourt which brings another dimension to our team."

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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; holden@whitman.edu