Heather Johns and her Whitman College teammates had no idea what to expect last weekend when they got to the NCAA Division III Final Four in Wisconsin.
It was the biggest stage any of them had played on, but it failed to unnerve the Missionaries, as they advanced to the title game and just missed out on the first national title in school history.
“You go into this tournament and it is a big stage and you are nervous,” the West Richland native said. “You are not sure if you will perform as well as you usually do.”
Johns, who is a 2011 graduate of Southridge High, performed even better than she normally does, scoring a career-high 33 points in Whitman’s 85-70 semifinal victory.
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“To have a good game on Friday night and a pretty good one on Saturday, it was really cool and good for my confidence,” she said. “Even though Saturday’s game didn’t go the way we wanted, I know I will take that experience with me and cherish it the rest of our lives.”
Johns finished the season being named to the Division III All-America first team. She was also named the Northwest Conference player of the year, and had monster games throughout the tournament.
Teammate Sarah Anderegg was third-team All-America.
“Heather and Sarah definitely pushed us and made us better,” Whitman head coach Michelle Ferenz said. “I felt like all year our strength was that we weren’t just about Heather and Sarah, both are very dynamic. Very good players and great athletes, but the rest of the team rose to their level.
“That is what made us good. Lots of teams have All-Americans, but can’t get the team to come with them.”
Whitman lost the title game to Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham 80-72 after not playing its best game of the season, though the Missionaries were facing an undefeated team.
“I don’t think that anyone on our team would say that we (played our best),” Johns said. “But we left it all on the floor as far as effort. We always do as a team. Even if the ball didn’t bounce our way, we are still proud of ourselves.
“It was an amazing season. History-setting season at Whitman College. Looking back and putting it into perspective, there are many teams and many players around the nation that didn’t get this chance this year and may never get the chance to go to a Final Four and play on that kind of stage.”
Whitman set a record for most victories in a season (31), deepest advancement in a season and Ferenz set the record for most career wins as a coach (203).
It was a banner year that was steeped in expectations, coming off of a trip to the Elite Eight, the Missionaries knew they had a good team, but they didn’t know if it would translate into a deep run or not.
Strong play by Johns and Anderegg, as well as Tiffani Traver, Meghan White, Hailey McDonald and Hailey Ann Maeda is what made the Missionaries so tough this season.
Anderegg, Traver and White are all seniors, who leave the school as the most successful group in school history — though they leave on a bittersweet note.
“We were pretty excited about being there, but stung by the loss,” Ferenz said. “I think the part of it that stings is you are right there and you have a chance to win the national title and you let it get away from you.
“I’m already using perspective. What this team did this year is just huge and enormous and historic for Whitman athletics and they should be proud of themselves.”