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College basketball 2021-22: Seasoned Whitworth sets sights on NWC crown, playoffs

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 5, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The core of Whitworth’s men’s basketball team has been through a lot together these past couple seasons.

There was the Division III NCAA Tournament run that ended with a victory – but not a championship – when the pandemic abruptly ended the event after the Round of 32 in March 2020.

Then there was last season, when the Pirates played a modified Northwest Conference schedule and lost multiple games due to COVID-19, while the NCAA cancelled the postseason tournament entirely.

So when Damion Jablonski looks at a schedule that includes not just the full complement of NWC opponents, but also some marquee nonconference matchups as well, the third-year coach welcomes the normalcy.

“It should be refreshing that we have a more normal season,” Jablonski said. “At the same time, we learned a lot about adaptability last year, so the lessons we learned will help us keep things in perspective.”

The Pirates return all five of their regular starters from a season ago, when they went 12-5 overall and 8-2 in a NWC schedule that included a lot of games (four each) with Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran.

They also welcome back graduate student Jordan Lester, whose eligibility has been extended multiple times due to injuries and the pandemic. He is joined by fellow graduate student Miguel Lopez, who transferred to Whitworth before last season and led the team in minutes per game (24.9) and scoring (12.6 points).

“Probably the first word that characterizes our team is experienced,” Jablonski said. “Jordan and Miguel are guys who really want to make the most of this final opportunity. A lot of stuff’s been taken away from them the last few years, so it’s great to have some senior leadership that has a sense of urgency. And we have six seniors, so we have a lot of urgency.”

The other four are JT McDermott, Liam Fitzgerald, Garrett Paxton and Rowan Anderson, who each started every game they played last season and finished as the team’s next four top scorers behind Lopez. Lester, when healthy, has averaged double-figures in scoring.

That gives the Pirates a core to build around, and they also return contributors like junior Jerry Twenge, a Mt. Spokane High graduate, and sophomore Jake Holtz, who showed promise as his role increased throughout last season.

Whitworth starts this season ranked No. 19 in the d3hoops.com national poll, in which they received one first-place vote. The Pirates open at home on Nov. 5 and 6 with games against Greenville and Redlands, part of the Tip-Off Classic, with fellow NWC team Pacific rounding out the event.

“They’re extremely ready, and they really want to play in front of fans again,” Jablonski said of his team. “That sure adds enjoyment for every college athlete.”

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