For five of the six seniors on the Whitworth men’s basketball team, this weekend’s games against the Whitman Blues will mark the end of their time with the Pirates.
The matchup is a familiar one, as the Blues and Pirates met in each of the past four Northwest Conference championship games.
Yet both teams look quite a bit different than the ones that played in the NCAA Division III Tournament a year ago.
Under first-year coach John Lamanna, Whitman (5-5 overall and NWC) is no longer the fast-paced, full-court pressing team it was before. Just two players remain from last year’s roster.
The Pirates (12-5, 10-2), for their part, play the same style but have done so with four starters who came off the bench most of last season.
Still, after splitting back-to-back games in February in Walla Walla, the Blues and Pirates are an intriguing matchup at the Fieldhouse on Friday and Saturday as they close their pandemic-shortened seasons.
“I think the fact that we split proved that it’s still quite a rivalry,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said. “It’ll be our last opportunity as a team to play, just as you saw with PLU (on Sunday), it was their last opportunity and they made the most of it and, hopefully, our guys will do the same.”
The Pirates’ roster turnover is due to a number of factors, graduation being the most obvious. For example, last year’s senior trio of Ben College, Sam Lees and Garrett Hull played 41.3% of the team’s minutes during the 2019-20 season, a somewhat comparable number to the 51.2% the previous team’s seniors played.
Whitworth’s seniors through 17 games this season have combined to play only 22% of the team’s minutes, and injuries have been a big reason why.
Senior guard Isaiah Hernandez, a presumptive starter who made a winning shot in the NCAA Tournament 12 months ago, hasn’t played this season due to an injury.
Senior Jordan Lester, whose career was already beset by injuries, suffered another one that cost him this campaign, although he plans to return next fall for a seventh season of college basketball. He has played 40 games – all starts – for the Pirates.
Reed Brown, a senior post who started 17 games a year ago, has played just nine games this season due to injuries. Other seniors also missed time due to COVID-19 protocols.
That all meant that the team’s four active seniors – Chewy Zevenbergen Tanner Fogle, Miguel Lopez and Brown – have played fewer combined minutes than the trio of freshmen Brad Lackey and Jake Holtz and sophomore Jerry Twenge.
Yet the contributions of those seniors were crucial for a team and program that prides itself on replacing production under the slogan, “Tradition Never Graduates.”
“Gosh, you can’t even tell this is their last season,” Lackey said of the team’s seniors. “They’re so bought in, they’re helping us young guys out. They’re just fighting for a season, and you can tell, their passion, their help for us young guys is inspiring to see. It helps us want to, for the next few years, carry on this culture that they’ve set and represent them well long after they’re gone.”
Even without a postseason, a fate the NCAA determined midseason for its Division III institutions, seniors stepped up at various points in the year to plug gaps in Whitworth’s lineup.
Most significant has been the play of the senior transfer Lopez, who leads the team in scoring (12.6 points per game) and is second in rebounds (6.1 per game).
But Fogle and Zevenbergen have had their moments, too.
Before this season, Fogle appeared in 42 games but had never scored more than five points. This year, he scored that many points seven times and averaged 6.2 per game, seventh most on the team. He also started two games.
“I’ve been playing my whole career behind a bunch of good players and finally got an opportunity,” Fogle said. “It’s been a good year.”
Zevenbergen saw a similar increase in production, doubling his scoring average from a year ago (2.4 to 5.1 points per game) and providing key minutes off the bench.
For him, filling that role, and setting an example for the team’s younger players, has been enough.
“Tanner (Fogle) and I are great examples of enduring, and (playing) we had to step up for our team,” Zevenbergen said. “Like Tanner says, our senior season, we’re just enjoying it.”
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