There are no Christmases at grandma and grandpa’s house. No ski holidays. Winter break is meant for tournaments.
In the Ferenz family, winter means basketball and nothing else.
The lack of a normal holiday experience sits just fine with the family of five who are ground zero for the Walla Walla basketball community.
“I have no regrets about playing,” said Chris Ferenz, the patriarch of the family. “Never skiing or snowboarding or never having a Christmas vacation because that is what basketball is all about.”
Never miss a local story.
Michelle, the matriarch, is the head coach of Whitman College’s women’s basketball team.
Chris is a longtime assistant for the Walla Walla High boys basketball team. Son Robert, a sophomore at Washington State, was a basketball and football contributor for the Blue Devils.
Twin daughters Mikayla and Kate are junior starters on the postseason-bound Walla Walla girls basketball team.
All you need to know about the Whitman College women’s basketball coach is that she never told her team that she was about to become the winningest coach in program history.
The players didn’t find out until late in the second half when the public address announcer told the crowd Michelle was about to pass fomer coach John Wilcox for her 179th win earlier this season in her 13th year at Whitman.
“The fact that we didn’t know about it says a lot about who she is as a coach,” Whitman senior Sarah Anderegg said. “She is very humble and reserved about how successful she has been and how talented she is as a coach. I think that speaks a lot to who she is as a person.”
Michelle played high school basketball at powerhouse Auburn, before playing college ball at what is now known as Montana State-Billings, an NCAA Division II school. She met her husband Chris there and the two eventually married and had three children, Rob, Mikayla and Kate.
At 23, she was hired as the Okanogan head girls basketball coach and immediately turned a struggling program into a perennial contender. Her first team won the district title and went to state, hooking Michelle on her new profession immediately.
After 10 years at Okanogan, the family moved to Anacortes. Michelle took a step back and coached a middle school girls team, going undefeated that season for good measure.
Chris didn’t like the rain, however, and the family decided to move back to Eastern Washington after a year on the wet side of the state.
Whitman College had an opening and with the program in turmoil — Michelle was the third coach in three years — it decided to take a risk on a career high school coach.
The hire proved shrewd, as the Missionaries have always enjoyed success under Michelle, but none more so than the last two years.
The program earned a berth in the NCAA Division III national tournament last season, advancing to the Elite Eight which is the farthest any team has gone in school history.
This year has been even better, as the Missionaries are undefeated at 21-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country.
“Obviously, she knows the game,” said Bobbi Hazeltine, the longtime women’s coach at Walla Walla Community College. “She is good at Xs and Os, she is a good communicator, organized, knows what it takes and it is fun to watch her teams because they do everything right.
“They run everything right. Obviously, it is because of her. She knows the game and knows how to get the most out of her kids.”
Her success, though, hasn’t consumed her or changed her from the 23-year-old first time coach in rural north central Washington.
“The thing that I really appreciate about (Chris and Michelle) is they have had great success, but that was never the big thing,” said Tim Payne, College Place superintendent and longtime family friend. “They are just a good, great solid family. They would give you their right arm or have you over for dinner if you needed it.”
From his first head coaching job in Australia as a young professional, coaching kids from the bush, to the wild success he had at the helm of the Okanogan boys program to the classrooms and courts at Walla Walla High School, Chris has been impacting youngsters world wide.
“He is a big part of our school,” said John Golden, Walla Walla boys coach. “He’s not just a basketball coach. He teaches AP calculus classes. The kids love him as a teacher and he is a big presence on campus.”
Chris played his high school ball in the Bay Area in California before playing at UC Davis in California. He then played pro ball in Australia and Europe, coaching at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College in the offseason.
He eventually ended up at MSU-Billings as an assistant coach while working on his master’s. He met Michelle there and eventually followed her to Okanogan.
When interviewing for the job, he was told the school didn’t have losing years, it had losing decades.
He took over a squad that had lost 30 games in a row and eventually took them to state where they placed fourth.
“The girls’ program was middle of the road and Michelle made them into a contender,” said Sterling Jones, an assistant of Chris’ in Okanogan. “Chris helped turn the boys into a powerhouse for a little while. They helped get the programs back on their feet.”
In Walla Walla, Chris does a bit of everything. He is an assistant for the boys varsity, an assistant for Michelle’s team at Whitman and has coached his daughters’ AAU teams in the past.
There have been some long days, but it’s all been worth it.
“You start out and you are really fired up,” he said of his career. “There is a certain amount of you that needs to win because it is about you. But as you get older, it really is that love for the game and wanting to share it with kids. And the lessons that are taught there.
“Not everybody is going to play the same, not every opportunity is equal, but you all as a collective group are committed to something and trying to get better.”
Rob can’t remember not playing basketball. From shooting hoops on a little plastic basket his parents bought him, to playing for the local YMCA teams and eventually playing for his dad at WaHi, Rob has been immersed in basketball.
“He was a big kid for us,” Golden said. “Rob always worked hard. He did a good job for us.”
Eventually he grew to love football more — being an honorable mention offensive lineman as a junior will do that — but he still finds time to play intramural basketball at Washington State and gets back to Walla Walla to watch his sisters play and his mom coach.
And when he gets done watching them, he breaks down their performances and those of their teams.
“He just starts talking like a coach and you realize that he was absorbing it,” Michelle said. “He was a very smart player. A very good basketball player and we always knew he understood the game, but now it is interesting to listen to him evaluate the game. It is a little scary — he sounds like us.”
Kate and Mikayla are fraternal twins.
Kate is blond, quieter, an introvert and plays the post position.
Mikayla is a brunette, loud, wants to go to a big college and is the point guard and leading scorer.
While they are different, they are also the same when it comes to basketball: they love it.
Any chance they get, they are in a gym shooting hoops. Any time of day, they might ask their dad to go with them to the gym to rebound for them.
And their love for the sport came naturally.
“A lot of people would assume that the parents are pushing the kids to be in the gym, but I don’t see that at all with them,” Golden said. “It is more the girls wanting to be in there and get better and practice. That is a real tribute to Chris and Michelle. As we all see more and more these days, it is parents forcing kids to do things. I don’t see that.”
The hours, days and years of practice are paying off for the pair.
Mikayla is the second leading scorer in the Mid-Columbia Conference and the face of the Blue Devils team. Kate is in the top 15 in scoring, but is known as a physical presence inside that can create matchup issues because of her ability to step outside and shoot.
“Mikayla is always a tough one to play against because she is really aggressive,” Chiawana High star Delaney Hodgins said. “She is aggressive on offense and she has a really good shot.
“Kate is really physical. She is big and is really hard to guard because she has a lot of down low moves and she can shoot.”
Mikayla is hoping to go to a regional college and play Division I basketball. She is talking to Washington State, Eastern Washington and Montana among others. Kate wants a small school feel, though she too is hoping to play ball at the next level.
“They are basketball junkies,” Walla Walla girls coach Jill Meliah said. “Their whole family obviously lives and breathes basketball. They have grown up in the gym, but they also have put in a lot of time regardless. Obviously it shows on the basketball court because they know the game really well and they love it.”
The Walla Walla family of five is virtually basketball royalty in the small community in southeast Washington.
“You are a part of something you love and it provides so many journeys,” said Chris. “I got to coach in Pennsylvania, play overseas, go to Europe and China playing. I’ve been all over and I’ve met just fantastic people.
“Those experiences and those people I’ve been around, that is probably what the girls are going through right now.”
Even with all of the accolades that will inevitably come their way, what really matters to the Ferenzes has little to do with the wins and the losses on the court.
“I walked into the gym at Pacific University (earlier this season) and there was one of my players from Okanogan,” Michelle said. “She had come to the game with her family, and she said she came to see me.
“That is the legacy. You did a good enough job that they still want to talk to you and they want to know what you are doing, and they are happy for your success.”