Whitman cruised through the regular season undefeated and was ranked the No. 1 team in the nation. Can the Lady Missionaries reach this year’s NCAA Final Four?
By Edward Weinman
They were the best Division III basketball team in the entire nation. After finishing the regular season 25-0, D3Hoops.com ranked Whitman’s Lady Missionaries No. 1 going into the Northwest Conference tournament.
It’s the first time a Whitman team has been ranked No. 1. Ever.
But as Whitman’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach Michelle Ferenz said, “Rankings don’t win ballgames.”
After defeating Puget Sound in the NWC semifinals, Whitman lost 68-65 to its biggest rival, Whitworth, in the conference finals.
For co-captains Tiffani Traver ’14 and Meghan White ’14, the loss is no big deal. In fact, the pressure of going for an undefeated season has relented.
“We still won our conference. The only difference is that we didn’t get to cut down our nets in front of our home crowd,” Traver said.
“We got the monkey off our back,” said White, moments before the NCAA selection committee announced that Whitman had earned an at-large bid for the 64-team tournament.
Now the only pressure the co-captains and their team face is winning the NCAA tournament.
“It’s the Big Dance. Anything can happen,” White said.
The biology-geology major has just come from a workout session in the pool. In fact, she’s wearing a specially designed buoyancy suit that enables athletes to run in the pool to enhance their cardiovascular conditioning without jarring their bodies by running on pavement. She’s wet and has a towel in hand as she explains why the team she and Traver captain has been so successful.
The team members like each other. White said that they go on retreats together, hang out together and host potlucks with pulled-pork on the menu. The team attends volleyball games while painting their faces in Whitman’s blue and gold. They respect each other and each other’s pregame rituals, no matter how quirky.
“Everyone is their own person,” White said. “Some players like to show up early for games and take hundreds of shots. I do yoga before the game.”
Even the players who eat donuts for a pregame meal are respected. Donuts?
“Sarah Anderegg,” White and Traver said simultaneously before laughing.
So the coach lets players sugar up before a game?
“As long as we play well,” White said.
The team has been on a roll, which is why the co-captains are not too concerned about pregame donuts or having lost one game. Or about rankings.
“Last year we were ranked 63rd out of the 64 teams that made the NCAA Tournament,” Traver said.
And look how that turned out. A trip to the Elite 8 before missing out on the Final Four with a 63-53 loss to Williams College. This year, however, the team is poised to take the next step.
“All it takes is six games,” White said.
Six more victories and a national championship. While the entire team is focused on making history, Traver points out that there is more to basketball than the final score. In fact, the basketball memory that most resonates with Traver is not an undefeated regular season, making it to last year’s Elite 8 or flying home on a private jet after the loss (although that was pretty cool).
Traver’s standout basketball moment is when a player she was guarding scored a layup. And what’s remarkable about this basket is that Traver let her opponent score.
It was senior night at Lewis & Clark, one of Whitman’s fiercest NWC rivals. As is customary, the home team honored their seniors during the last home game of the regular season. Lewis and Clark senior Tayler Wang had injured her knee weeks prior to the final game. With Whitman winning by 11, the star guard came in as a substitute during the dying minutes so the home crowd could recognize her. Ferenz had been notified before the game that Lewis & Clark would send in the injured Wang if the outcome had been decided. Wang had a career total of 899 points.
What happened next proves the axiom that form is temporary, but class is permanent.
“I was guarding Wang, and coach yelled at me to move. I didn’t know what was happening,” Traver said.
Ferenz was asking Traver to let Wang score. Traver stepped out of the way, opening up a clear path to the basket, and Wang dribbled on her hobbled knee to the basket and laid it up, breaking the 900-point barrier for her career.
“The crowd went silent and their players started crying. Then the crowd erupted. I’ll never forget it,” Traver said.
Lewis & Clark tweeted a thank you to the Lady Missionaries for their sportsmanship.
“It shows you this team’s character. We respect our opponents not only as athletes but also as people,” Traver said.
Don’t think, however, that the women’s basketball team is soft. They are flat-out tough. The day after losing to Whitworth, Meghan and some of her fellow teammates were working out in the pool. Before NCAA sanctioned practices started, these co-captains led open gym (without coaches), so the team could better learn each other’s tendencies. If a player has a spare hour between classes, they often hit the gym for extra shoot-around. Since the first day of practice, the hoopsters were determined to surpass last season’s historic run to the Elite 8.
Wins and losses, though, take a back seat to academic work. White and Traver have already made plans for after graduation. Both will join Teach for America, with Traver teaching math in Las Vegas and White teaching biology in San Jose. The co-captains are as proud of their acceptance into Teach for America as they are of their undefeated season, because the program that sends graduates to underserved urban or rural public schools for two-year teaching stints has roughly a 14 percent acceptance rate.
“They say it’s easier to get into Harvard than into Teach for America,” White said. “Basketball taught me that if you work hard, you can do anything. I hope to teach this to my students, who might otherwise not have the same opportunities as kids from higher income families.”
Both White and Traver credit the support they’ve received for their success. Because of the resurgence of women’s basketball, this support has overflowed into the Sherwood stands.
To top off the stellar season, Whitman will for the first time ever host the opening rounds in the NCAA West regional at Sherwood. Home court to kick off the tournament might just catapult the Lady Missionaries into the coveted Final Four.
“Last season we were this close to making it to the Final Four,” Traver said, holding up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.
“This season the whole Whitman and Walla Walla community has been there to celebrate our success, and so to be able to play in front of our home crowd for nationals is awesome.”
As luck would have it, the NCAA penciled Whitman rivals Whitworth into the same bracket. If both teams win their opening round games, Whitman will have the opportunity to avenge the only blemish on their season in their first two steps down the road to the Final Four.
“Playing and beating Whitworth would definitely be fun but we have to get past Chapman. If we do end up playing Whitworth, I think as a team we will be really fired up and ready to get our revenge,” Traver said.