The Pirates, under coach Matt Logie (120-26 in five seasons), throw big guards and talented wings at opponents in a never-ending pressure offense and defense that quickly overpowers opponents that can’t keep pace.
And the talent is at somewhat of a tectonic shift as three seniors – Kenny Love, Christian Jurlina and Drew Sears – get a final chance to lead a squad that finished 26-2 last season and attained a No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history. The season ended the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament for the third straight time.
“The hope is always a national championship,” said Love, who averaged 14.6 points a game, the same as Jurlina. “There hasn’t been a year when we didn’t have the talent. We just have to bring the focus.”
The team again will be led by the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Love at guard and the 6-5, 200-pound Jurlina at wing.
The team also got a bonus as Sears, who blossomed into a shot-blocking force last season, grew over the summer into a legitimate 7-footer. But Sears, who had twice as many blocks (63) as anyone else in the conference, has been on the shelf and only recently began to practice with the team after suffering a stress fracture in his leg over the summer.
“We are excited about what we have coming back and the group coming in,” said Sears, who averaged 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. “It’s our last time, our last chance. We are excited to make one more final push to reach our goals.”
The team lost to graduation one of the best players in program history, George Valle, who played everything from point guard to center. He led the team with 16.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game last season. Also graduating was guard Matt Staudacher, who averaged eight points and led the team with 85 assists.
The team also returns senior guard Derek Isaak, (4.1 ppg, four starts) and sophomore Kyle Roach, who like Sears, grew in the offseason. The 6-5, 198-pound Roach averaged 6.2 points and 3.1 rebounds as a freshman.
“Kenny and Christian have been first-team all-league guys for two years in a row. They are guys who have fueled a lot of our offense,” Logie said.
“Guys like Roach, Sears and Isaak will have more opportunities because Kenny and Christian demand so much attention.”
Logie said Roach can be as good as he wants to be.
“He’s primed to have a breakout year. You could see flashes of it at the end of last season,” Logie said.
While Sears has been out, sophomore Ben Bishop (6-8, 240-pound sophomore) and Benjamin Nick (6-9, 205-pound freshman) have been getting added minutes in practice.
“There are not a lot of teams at our level who don’t have three guys with that size,” Logie said.
But Whitworth does most of its damage with its outside shooters, and wings who penetrate the lane.
Jurlinam, who excels at both, said it seems like months ago that he arrived in Spokane from Australia as a raw forward with a shooter’s touch.
“I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t entered my mind,” he said of his final season.
He and the Pirates are seeking to extend a program-record run that includes seven consecutive Northwest Conference regular-season crowns and 10 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s part of the enjoyment of being the top dog,” Jurlina said.
“You always have a target on your back. You are going to have every team give their best against us. It’s a tradition. We’ve got to keep this thing going.”
The Whitworth women’s basketball team is full of young, unproven players. Even after 23 years on the sidelines, coach Helen Higgs said she doesn’t yet know how they will respond.
“I’m fine with that,” Higgs said. “I like our energy. They like each other and they are working hard. I think we will be good. What does good look like? I don’t know.”
The team lost the play-making ability and leadership of KC McConnell, the all-everything guard who set an example in every practice and game. McConnell led the team in points (19.8), rebounds (6.4), steals (43) and was second in assists (60.)
“She was that individual, this person everyone wanted to be around who made everyone around her better,” Higgs said. McConnell “made everyone else strive for excellence.”
Instead, Higgs now has a roster of 16 players and 10 of them are freshmen or sophomores. The highest-scoring returning starter is Callie Harwood, who averaged 7.1 and 4.6 rebounds a game.
The team also returns starting-senior point guard Jessica Thoens (3.7 points, 81 assists) and backup guard Grace Douglas (4.2 points, 1.4 rebounds). But the rest of the team will be made up of part-timers who now must step up for a team that finished 15-11 overall and 10-6 in the Northwest Conference.
Higgs expects bigger roles for junior Chloe Quinnett, a 5-foot-10 junior forward from Moscow, Idaho; Madison Moffat, a 5-8 guard from Ellensburg; Faith Cebula, a 6-foot forward from Olympia; and Alli Kieckbusch from Lynnwood, Washington.
Asked her prediction of how the team will play against Whitman, George Fox and Puget Sound, Higgs answered: “Ask me after the season. This has got to be one of the youngest teams I’ve had.
“If you asked me who our top seven players are, I don’t know,” she said. “But I can tell you the top 10 and we’ll go from there.”
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