Nothing blue about Whitman's fun run

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Pressure? What pressure? Undefeated Whitman is enjoying its first ride to the national semifinals.
Photo by Rebecca Wheeler, Marietta athletics

By Andrew Lovell

The situation wasn't quite dire, but it was trending in that direction.

Whitman had allowed Rochester's three-point halftime lead to swell to 11 early in the second half of Saturday's NCAA sectional final. Worse yet, the hot-shooting Yellowjackets had drained three of their first four 3-point attempts to open the second half. Momentum had swung in Rochester's favor, and Whitman's undefeated season hung in the balance.

Was it time to panic? Time to make a radical game-plan change to spark a comeback? Time to try something drastic? No, no, and no. For head coach Eric Bridgeland and his players, it was just time to have fun.

Bridgeland stressed as much in the team's sideline huddles, and slowly but surely, the Blues chipped away at the lead. In a game that featured 13 tie scores and 10 lead changes, the No. 1-ranked Blues topped the No. 13-ranked Yellowjackets 91-87 to clinch the first Final Four trip in Whitman's program history.

"They're just having fun," Bridgeland said. "What does it mean? It means we're going to have more fun."

The Blues have had a lot of fun this season. A program-record 31 wins, the Northwest Conference's first men's Final Four appearance, and the first Final Four trip by a west coast Division III basketball program since Cal State Stanislaus in 1982.

"I don't think that they've felt the gravity of doing that yet, the magnitude of what that means," Bridgeland said. "And that's just fine. We'll wait another week before we bring that up."

All season long, the Blues have stressed enthusiasm and creativity over records and rankings, the journey over the destination, and the brotherhood over individual accolades. Look closely at the Blues' gear this season and you'll notice the letters "FAB," which stand for "Fight As Brothers."

"Coach always talks about, not about the outcome, but just enjoying each other and having the most fun you can have, and just playing hard and playing our style of play," said junior guard Tim Howell. "Then the rest will take care of itself."

Few players better exemplify the Blues' selfless, have-fun attitude, or Bridgeland's vision for multi-positional, relationship-oriented players than Howell, the West Region Player of the Year and a likely All-American. Howell, a dynamic 6-foot-1 guard with superior scoring ability and range out to the 3-point line, is averaging 20.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent (49.3) from the floor en route to NWC Player of the Year honors. But a standout career at Whitman wasn't always a foregone conclusion for the Calabasas, Calif., native.

In high school, Howell attended a clinic held by Bridgeland in Pasadena, mostly as a favor to his travel coach. As Howell's travel circuit took him around the West Coast, he continued to see Bridgeland, who persistently recruited Howell with the same infectious, positive attitude that defines his teams.

Despite drawing interest from Cornell University, Princeton, Lafayette, and Division III Occidental, Howell chose Whitman, a school with an undergraduate enrollment of slightly less than 1,500 in Walla Walla, Wash.

When it's crunch time, the Blues know to get the ball in Tim Howell's hands.
Photo by Nate Knobel, Marietta athletics

Howell's freshman season started slowly, as he adjusted to the size and speed of players at the college level. But after an injury to one of Whitman's starters forced Howell into extended minutes late in his first season, he's never looked back.

"He doesn't know a bad day," Bridgeland said of Howell. "His smile brightens up every single room. If you ever have a chance to meet him, he'll come up and have a smile from ear to ear. You can't help but just like him."

Howell's involvement extends beyond basketball, as he's actively involved in the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

"He's like the Pied Piper," Bridgeland said. "I'm not kidding, he probably has 15-20 kids come to each game in Walla Walla, which would be the equivalent of probably 50 in a larger community."

Bridgeland values versatility in his players. The more positions they can play, the better. Of Whitman's 14 players, 10 of them are listed as guards or wings. All 10 of those perimeter plays stand between 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-6. Still, on a team full of guards, Howell stands out.

"We have a bunch of playmakers out there, not just Tim," Bridgeland said. "But he has the ball when we need a basket, there's no doubt about that."

Bridgeland, who guided Puget Sound to multiple Sweet 16 appearances in the mid-2000s, took over as Whitman's new coach in 2008. He inherited a team that had one winning record in the 20 seasons prior to his arrival. By his third year, the Blues had a winning season, and last season ended in the Sweet 16, the program's first-ever trip to the NCAA playoffs.

Whitman has set new program milestones in virtually every conceivable metric this season.

"All of a sudden you look up and you go, 'Wait a minute, we're 31-0? What?' It's crazy," Bridgeland said.

"Never mind the rest of the country that maybe doesn't know quite as much. The state of Washington's in shock," Bridgeland added. "Everyone's just shaking their heads like, 'What is going on in Walla Walla? How can that be possible?'"

It's possible because of players like Howell; sophomore guard Joey Hewitt, who provides instant offense off the bench; junior wing Jase Harrison, the team's most efficient 3-point shooter; sophomore wing Austin Butler, who has led the team in assists each of the last two seasons; sophomore wing Jack Stewart, who scored a team-high 22 points in the Elite Eight win against Rochester; among a handful of others that all embrace playing for each other over themselves.

"When they go out there, they know that they have the green light, but they're not playing for themselves," Bridgeland said. "That's a powerful combination."

Rather than travel back to Washington after the sectional final, Whitman's players took a bus from Marietta, Ohio to Salem, Virginia for the Final Four -- minus Bridgeland, who briefly traveled back to Washington for his son's birthday before this week's commitments. Whitman faces Babson in the early game Friday night at 5 p.m., followed by Augustana and Williams in the late game.

"We want to put Whitman on the map," Howell said.

However the final weekend plays out for Whitman, the team is going to have some fun. They don't know any other way.

"We're going to have fun this week, and we're going to play Babson and see what happens," Bridgeland added. "But we're going to have fun doing it, I can guarantee that."