What's in the water in Walla Walla?

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Alysse Ketner and the Blues are seeking their second perfect NWC season in the last four years.
Matt Banderas, Whitman College Communications

There are 17 unbeaten Division III basketball teams on Jan. 10, 2017 – 14 women's and three men's. You'll find two of them way out west in Walla Walla, Wash.

What's the secret at Whitman College?

Well, see, just weeks before the season, the college changed the nickname of its athletic teams from the "Missionaries" to the "Blues."

Boom. The already-successful basketball programs haven't lost since. Other finalists Appaloosas, Blue Ravens and Sockeyes? Wouldn't have done the trick.

"The Blues evoke the expansive skyline of the West," a statement released by the college reads, "the expansive way Whitman students see the world around ..." All right, that's probably enough.

At this point, let's consider the likelihood that these two basketball teams are actually very talented.

Both sit 13-0 overall and 4-0 in the Northwest Conference. The men's team, ranked No. 2, has already beaten ranked foes Whitworth (79-65) and Marietta (72-71).

The 16th-ranked women's squad hasn't faced any top-25 competition thus far, but that's coming. Oh, that's coming.

No. 18 Puget Sound's visit to Walla Walla this Saturday leaves a distinct possibility the Blues won't remain unscathed before students return to campus for the first day of classes Tuesday.

None of this worries Whitman Coach Michelle Ferenz. She's been through this, and recently. The 2013-14 Missionaries went 25-0 in the regular season and finished NCAA runner-up.

So let's probably rule out "mascot" from the list of secrets to consider.

"One thing we've always really tried to do is not get ahead of ourselves," Ferenz said. "You can't get caught up in what everyone else is doing."

That's mighty important this year because not only are Whitman and UPS ranked, but reigning NWC champion George Fox is No. 20, and teams like Lewis and Clark and Willamette aren't pushovers.

This Whitman women's team may not go undefeated, but it's got a shot to build a heck of a resume. Last year Whitman struggled at times and finished 17-8, 10-6 in the NWC. A lot of key pieces are back and nine players average at least 11 minutes. The bench can go deeper if necessary.

"We were young last year in a lot of spots and really lacked the double-whammy of experience and depth," Ferenz said. "We have better depth, better experience, which you have to have when you play back-to-back nights. You have to go to your bench and they have to be able to produce."

The defense has been suffocating, allowing 0.71 points per possession and forcing 24.6 turnovers per 100 possessions.

If you had to pinpoint a weakness, it's ... balanced scoring. Maybe. Chelsi Brewer averages 13.4 points, Alysse Ketner 10.2. No one else is in double figures.

Does Whitman have someone who can take over a game and, as the kids say, "get buckets" down the stretch?

"It's a blessing and a little bit of a curse," Ferenz said. "Part of it is we're still kind of a work in progress. Chelsi and Alysse are both playing well ... I think we're just evolving. Our juniors are starting to find themselves a little bit."

One of those juniors, Emily Rommel, was hurt for parts of last year and had a tough time reintegrating. She continues to show improvement, now at 9.8 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds per game.

"A lot of it is this group needed to mature," Ferenz said. "They're getting there. Long way to go, but they're getting there."


Eric Bridgeland walked into a room at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., last March and found his Whitman men's basketball team having, well, it wasn't a food fight by the 90s-movie definition, but it was pretty close.

This team's season had just ended after absorbing a 99-73 setback to eventual-champion St. Thomas in the Sweet 16.

"Kids being kids, having fun," Bridgeland said.

That's what sports are supposed to be about, after all. Of course, it's a lot more fun when you're winning. And this year, the Whitman men are having a lot of fun.

Like the women, the men have experience, too. But again, what makes the difference is depth.

Tim Howell leads the team in scoring (19.0) for the second straight year. The second-leading scorer? He doesn't start.

In fact, Jase Harrison just recently buried weekend opponents Linfield and Pacific with 39 points on 7-of-10 3-point shooting off the bench. Joey Hewitt and Jack Stewart also average double figures, and plenty of others can get it done in an up-tempo style.

The key description Bridgeland mentions is "selfless." These guys love playing with and for each other. They're having fun.

"We're really, really deep and we've got so many guys who can do so many different things in a free-flowing style of offense," Bridgeland said. "So this could be the best group I've ever been with."

With a statement like that, there are obviously big goals. But perhaps on a micro-level, winning the NWC would be considered a massive achievement as well.

Bridgeland arrived in 2008, turned the program around, and has now earned five straight second-place finishes. The Blues already have a two-game lead on six-time champion and archrival Whitworth. But the then-fifth ranked Pirates showed this isn't a done deal for Whitman when they fell to Pacific over the weekend.

"For us, it's not a matter of adding a bunch of stuff," Bridgeland said. "Little, simple things make a difference. I know that sounds generic but that's honestly what we're doing."

If it leads to a conference championship – or two – everyone will want a case of The Blues.

Tommies aren't done yet

At 5-0 last Wednesday, the Bethel men had a chance to definitively make itself the MIAC favorite.

And then 11-time champion St. Thomas drove over to Arden Hills and picked up an 83-74 win. Now one game back and tied with Hamline (!!!), UST has won five in a row, the last three without senior point guard Grant Shaeffer, who had started 70 straight games prior.

That's rather significant.

In Shaeffer's absence, John Veil went off for a career-high 27 points and 12 assists against the Royals.

Head coach John Tauer called it "one of the all-time great performances by a UST guard."

"Through inexperience, youth and injuries, this team has been stellar in terms of cohesiveness, accepting roles, redefining those roles and finding a way to play gritty and intelligent basketball," Tauer told sports information.

UST survived Kevin Grow's 19 points and 25 rebounds Saturday at Carleton, with Connor Bair's go-ahead tip-in with 2.1 seconds left capping a 9-0 run to end UST.

Even if you think Bethel is the favorite, the conference still runs through Schoenecker Arena at this point.

Joining the poll

Claremont-Mudd-Scripps grabbed the last spot in the D3hoops.com top 25 this week. The Stags are 10-1 and haven't lost to a Division III opponent.

Michael Scarlett earned player of the week honors in the SCIAC, in part for his 23 points in a win over Redlands.

It says here Scarlett has also earned the Around the West Beard of the Week (Year?) award.

Meanwhile, Gustavus Adolphus joined the women's top 25 at No. 24.

Miranda Rice had a career-high 30 points in as Gustavus pushed its record to 13-0 with a 71-50 win over St. Benedict on Saturday. The 13-0 start is tied for the best in program history with the 2002-03 team.

Men's performers of the week

Colby Taylor became Central's all-time leading scorer with 30 points – 25 in the second half – in Wednesday's win over Luther. He broke Jeff Verhoef's 33-year-old record and now has 1,584 points after scoring 29 in a loss Saturday at Buena Vista.

Minnesota-Morris' CD Douglas had an almost-quadruple-double (that is a thing; I am making that a thing) last week against North Central. Douglas went for 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting, nine rebounds, nine assists and eight steals.

Nasser Al-Reyes helped Caltech get off to a 2-0 start in SCIAC play (before a loss to CMS) with 24 points and 12 boards against Whittier, then 25 and 10 against rival Occidental.

Jared Christy helped Pacific Lutheran off the NWC schneid with a career-high 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting and 11 rebounds in a 92-75 victory over George Fox.

Bethel's defense held Augsburg's Collin Olmscheid – my MIAC midseason player of the year pick – to a 2-for-10 day from the field, seven points and six boards in an 89-71 win.

Women's performers of the week

LaShay Holt became St. Catherine's career steals leader with a pair against Carleton to boost her total to 211. She also had 22 points and 11 boards in the Wildcats' 65-62 win.

Greta Walsh poured in 27 points and added four assists and three steals for Concordia-Moorhead in Saturday's 73-65 win over Hamline.

A career-high 19 points from Kimberly Frost helped George Fox pull away for a 68-54 win against Pacific Lutheran. Maybe more impressive: Frost had five steals in both the Bruins' wins last week, the other a 79-61 triumph against Lewis and Clark. Frost added five assists Tuesday and six Friday.

Faye Osborn's career-high 24 points helped La Verne earn its first win of the season, 68-57 over winless Pomonz-Pitzer. Osborn also had nine rebounds.

Lizzy Swanson totaled 55 points for North Central over the weekend, first scoring 24 in a loss to co-UMAC leader North Central before putting up 31 to go with eight rebounds and two dimes in the Rams' 71-52 win over Crown.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to D3football.com in 2013.