Tournament excitement comes to Whitman

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Whitman fans showed up in force for Whitman men's basketball's first-ever NCAA Tournament game, and a whiteout ensued.
Whitman athletics photos

By Ben Zimmerman

WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- One week before, Sherwood Gymnasium on the campus of Whitman College had been almost this full.

But quiet.

Now -- one long, strange, agonizing, euphoric, unforgettable week later -- it was roaring.

The dude his teammates call ‘Smash,’ Whitman sophomore Christian McDonald, had just stolen the ball, the score tied midway through his team’s first NCAA Tournament game in program history. Then he had dribbled up court, stopped at the 3-point line and – flanked by a pair of Chapman defenders – elevated and launched a 3-pointer while getting bumped by both, like gum being worked between molars.

The shot swished as a foul was called.

And oh, how they roared.

In the postgame interview room, Senior Evan Martin said McDonald’s four-point play “lit a fire.”

“It was the separation point,” he said.

Martin meant in the game, and he had a good argument. Whitman would never trail again after McDonald’s shot. Its full-court press, which Chapman guard Luke Hamlin said after was the best he’d seen all year, forced five turnovers on the Panthers next six possessions. With Whitman sophomore and Northwest Conference scoring champion Tim Howell on the bench with four fouls, freshman Montez White channeled his teammate’s notorious, slashing persona and carved into the paint for buckets and dimes.

Whitman won 91-84 to set up a second-round showdown with NWC rival Whitworth on Saturday.

But McDonald’s four-point play did more than permanently separate Whitman and its pesky foils. The roar it called forth, just after the double doors above the east basket had been opened to cool a gym that was smoldering, marked Whitman’s separation from its decades of waiting for a chance to play on Division III basketball’s main stage.

The roar was more than just a basketball rendering of call-and-response. It was more than a pause to celebrate a performance Whitman head coach Eric Bridgeland would call “fun, fast, balanced.”

The roar contained Sherwood’s awkward, queasy silence after last Thursday’s 82-68 loss to Pacific Lutheran in the NWC semifinals, which put Whitman’s NCAA Tournament hopes at the mercy of a selection committee which has historically regarded the west coast as uninhabited wilderness.

“There’s such a fine line,” said Bridgeland, who has served on regional selection committees in the past. “It’s so competitive. There’s 400 or so teams (in Division III), and literally one wrong step in scheduling, if you play too heavy or too light of a schedule, you lose a game you should have won… One bad loss, it’s all gone.

Tochi Oti was one of five Whitman players in double figures.
Whitman athletics photo 

“You bring it as best you can, day to day,” he added. “There’s just no guarantee.”

The roar channeled the even bleaker silence which haunted Whitman’s players and coaches immediately following the loss, when it was “more silent than I’d ever experienced in our locker room,” Martin said on Wednesday night. “You didn’t expect it to end that way. It was this weird, limbo moment.”

“Leaving the gym,” Whitman athletic director Dean Snider added, “was really tough.”

Senior guard Jackson Clough called it “scary” and “disappointing.”

Senior guard Phil Chircu called it “crushing” and “horrible,” Bridgeland “difficult” and “traumatic.”

“It seemed to be, and was presented as being, the end of my fourth season,” Chircu said. “Once again, we got knocked out in the semifinals (for the third year in a row). At home. (Ditto). Where we haven’t lost a game all season.”

Bridgeland and Clough, one of three key players to suffer season-ending injuries during the year, were the last two people in Sherwood following the PLU loss. They stood on the second-story concourse above the west end of the court and talked long after the gym had emptied around them.

“Coach has a lot of experience with the NCAA committee, so in terms of that conversation, I was basically asking him if we had a chance,” Clough said. “We really had no idea. There might be a little hope.

“He kept saying, ‘I tried so hard to get you guys to the tournament,’ ” Cough added. “He kept reiterating that. To spend so much time with a bunch of guys who have come together for the same goal, and to feel like that has slipped away… It’s never easy. There is a feeling of, man, if we just had one more chance.”

The roar Thursday was a rejoicing in that one more chance.

Still, there was more to the roar.

It was a collective, public amplification of the team’s private revelry on Monday, when the coaching staff and players who didn’t have class – “They were specifically told not to skip class to be there,” Bridgeland noted – piled into the team’s film room to watch the webcast of the tournament bracket announcement. Their reaction to seeing and hearing their name called – captured on video and shared broadly via social media – was ecstatic, uninhibited, cathartic.

Not just receiving the bid, which vindicated a season’s labors, a weekend’s angst and decades of alumni dreams – but to host.

“It was euphoric,” Bridgeland said in describing the team’s reaction to the bid announcement. “I’d done all the numbers in my head and on paper. I’d watched You’ve got to live for now. You only live once. It has been a big mission to make it to March. So many of our teams have come close. ...”

Bridgeland was deluged with texts and phone calls. Former players. “Six or seven” Whitman trustees.

“Our seniors have just given everything,” he said. “For them to be able to say that it was their legacy to find a way to make it to March. ...”

Players and coaches seamlessly locked back into preparatory mode. The disorienting limbo of waiting, of hoping “without getting (one’s) hopes up too much,” as Chircu described it, crystalized into a hyper-focus on the first NCAA Tournament game in program history, mere days away.

Meanwhile, the news seeped across campus and into the greater community. The roar after McDonald’s shot on Thursday was the culmination of its response.

Whitman made 500 tickets available for presale, starting Tuesday morning. Alyssa Maine, a senior on the Whitman women’s golf team, worked the first ticket-selling shift, at the Baker Ferguson Fitness Center

“What has it been, 18 minutes?” she said, “We’ve already sold 100 tickets.”

“At 11:38, there was already a line stretching out the door,” added Michele Hanford, Whitman’s fitness facilities director, who was Maine’s co-vendor on Wednesday morning. “Someone asked if we were selling tickets early. I said, ‘Yeah, why not.’”

Seventy of the 500 tickets available for presale had been gobbled up by noon. Fifty more were claimed by 12:30. Maine wondered whether a Thursday-night tipoff – as opposed to a weekend evening – might diminish turnout.

But Hanford recalled the ravenous ticket demand in 2013, when the Whitman women’s team hosted back-to-back rounds of the NCAA Tournament on consecutive weekends (and went 4-0).

“We filled (Sherwood) every time,” she said.

“To have the community as engaged as it was in 2013 was very gratifying,” added Snider. “I’ve been in Walla Walla 20 years. I have an existence within Whitman, but I’ve connected with so many people outside of it. Walla Walla loves its sports, which makes for a nice connection. And Whitman has made a real effort to reach out, to serve the community, to give back. We feel like that’s an important part of our mission.

“It’s nice,” he said, “when you can connect and share a common passion with the entire community.”

The front doors to Baker Ferguson kept swinging during the Tuesday lunch hour. Lynn Lunden, a member of Whitman’s ‘W’ Club and the college’s associate vice president for Development, sauntered to the ticket table and bought five tickets – one apiece for herself, her daughter-in-law, son, grandson and spouse.

“I’m very excited,” said Lunden, a frequent presence at Whitman games this winter. “We’re in the NCAA championships!”

Maine reminded Lunden that Thursday’s game was a “white-out,” with fans asked to wear white top as a show of solidarity – and a dose of monochromatic intimidation.

“Oh yeah,” said Lunden. “I will.”

She smiled.

“This is fabulous. Just fabulous.”

Dale Schroeder was next in line. The retired property manager, who still has farmland in Illinois, had seen the clip capturing Whitman’s team-room celebration. Schroeder’s wife, Mary Lynne, is a former vice principal at Walla Walla High School.

“I’ve gone to a couple games this year,” he said. “This was actually a big surprise. I didn’t even know they were in the running (for the NCAA Tournament).”

The line of for fans waiting to enter Sherwood started forming at 3:45 on Thursday, according to its sole occupant for the first hour, Kevin Halazon. Halazon, 47, works for Nelson Irrigation and has lived in Walla Walla for 15 years. He has no formal affiliation with Whitman.

“My affiliation is, I live in Walla Walla, Washington,” Hazalon said, “and Whitman College is one of the nicest places with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

By 5:30, Halazon’s pregame vigil was no longer so lonely. He had been joined in line by Brent Dunn, whose wife, Juli, was Whitman’s first athletic trainer. Also Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, who moved to Walla Walla in 1982 with her husband, Tim, when he became a politics professor at Whitman. Both have worked at Whitman since. Her white V-neck hoody had ‘Whitman 82’ printed on it. Next in line was Chuck Cleveland, Whitman Dean of Students, and his wife, Pat Sorenson, an ’86 grad who retired from a Whitman career in June of 2015.

“I loved it here,” she said. “I felt so lucky to be here.”

She leaned in and mentioned that Chuck “likes to sit in the front row;” he offered assurances that this has nothing to do with a desire to be within speaking range of the officiating crew.

Glen Groodem, Class of 1960, made the four-hour drive to Walla Walla from his home in Portland on Thursday. Groodem’s wife, Tina (Class of ’63), is on the board of Whitman’s ‘W’ Club, where she serves as ambassador to the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Walla Walla Community College students Daisy Nateras and Freddy Rodriguez were in line early because of a mutual love of basketball.

“Walla Walla never gets to be part of something this big,” Nateras said. “I thought it was pretty cool.”

She heard about the game from Rodriguez, who saw the celebration video on Facebook.

“I love the campus. Might as well come check this out,” he said.

The line grew longer, until it disappeared around the corner. Its population stayed eclectic, like Whitman and like Walla Walla.

It would eventually form an environment familiar to the troupe it is here to support and implore.

“Every single one of our players who come here always comment that everyone is nice to them,” Bridgeland said. “This is truly a home. I know a big part of (the players’) drive is to represent each other, their school, the W Club. But there are also so many community members who have treated them like their own, so many who have embraced them.”