At the start of the 2012-13 season, Whitman College women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz wasn’t sure what to expect from her team.
The Missionaries returned just two starters, no all-conference athletes and they graduated the best player in program history.
The Whitman women overcame all of that, though, and advanced to their first NCAA Division III tournament in program history.
The Missionaries (22-5) face Emory University at 3 p.m. Pacific time today in the third round in Williamstown, Mass.
“At the beginning of the season, it was not something we were thinking about,” Ferenz said. “But as the season went on and we realized we had a much bigger team, it became a reality. We had a very good season in a very tough conference.”
If Whitman wins, it will play the winner of Ithaca-Williams in a regional final at 4 p.m. Saturday.
A key to the Missionaries’ success has been the play of transfer Heather (Worley) Johns, a 2010 Southridge graduate.
Johns, a point guard, initially went to play at NCAA Division II Saint Martin’s in Lacey, before transferring to Whitman and sitting out last season.
Her steady play this season earned her all-league second team honors in the Northwest Conference, and praise from her coach.
Whitman graduated Jenele Peterson, who was No. 4 on its scoring list and is playing pro ball in Germany. Peterson is the first player in program history to play professionally.
Johns, obviously, had big shoes to fill.
“She has really helped fill that void,” Ferenz said. “She is obviously a very good player. She has taken over the tough duty of running the team on the floor.”
Johns, who was not available for an interview, is averaging 11.8 points per game this season and 3.6 assists. She is one of two players in double digits for the Missionaries, including Sarah Anderegg, a junior from Redmond, who is averaging 13.5.
“This team works very hard, they are a very good defensive team, good rebounding and do all the little things right,” said Ferenz, who earned her second NWC coach of the year honors last month. “It gave us a chance to compete early in the season and gave us a chance to grow offensively.”
The Missionaries growth showed, as they finished second in the always tough NWC.
“The NWC in D-III is very good,” Ferenz said. “Getting to the tournament is huge. (The NWC) teams have always done very well. It is almost harder to play in our conference in some respects.”
Now the Missionaries hope to continue in these uncharted territories of winning NCAA tournament games.
“We are going to go where they tell us to go and play who they tell us to play,” Ferenz said of playing on the East Coast. “We are young in a lot of spots and the expectations weren’t geared toward the NCAA tournament ... in January we realized we were pretty good.”
And they’ve continued to be good, right into March.