Off the Court: Basketball Seniors Reflect on Journey to NCAA Final Four
This semester, seniors Marah Alindogan and Sarah Anderegg juggled the positions of being Pio sports reporters while also playing on the Whitman women’s basketball team—national runners-up and one of the most successful teams in school history. Alindogan and Anderegg reflected on their journeys as Whitman basketball players from being lowly underclassmen to taking the court at the national championship game.
Sarah Anderegg: Initially, I wasn’t completely thrilled about the idea of going to Whitman. I was looking at bigger schools with bigger programs, hoping that all the time and energy I spent on basketball would earn me a scholarship. If it wasn’t for [Head Women's Basketball] Coach Michelle Ferenz, it is doubtful that I would be here today.
The college recruiting process can be very dehumanizing, and many coaches recruit players by treating them like commodities. It is a business, and they don’t care if you are a ‘good’ person, as long as you have a killer step-back jumper or can nail a deep three. Out of all the coaches that I talked to, Coach Ferenz was the only one that made me feel like a person, like she genuinely cared. Although I was reluctant, I believe I made one of the best decisions of my life when I accepted my admittance at Whitman.
It was difficult adjusting to the speed and intensity of college basketball. I spent most of my first two years just trying to stay afloat, balancing the transition from high school to college both athletically and academically. I came to Whitman having never lifted weights, and I quickly learned the hard way that I was behind the pack.
Hitting the floor for the first time at open gym was a brutal wake up call and welcome to the team. Although that was not the first (or last) time I fell, I was greeted with the hands of teammates waiting to pick me up, reassuring me that I was not alone. I will never forget the tough love given to me by [alumna] Anna Forge ’12, and even though I had to fight off the urge to punch her most days, I can honestly say that she made me a better player every single day. I might not have appreciated it then, but she made me a stronger person, both mentally and physically.
If I even tried to hit her four years ago, she is so strong that I am confident she would have broken my twig arm, but today, I think the fight might be a bit more even. The roller coaster of freshman and sophomore year taught me that life is full of challenges, but it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, just how many times you stand back up.
Marah Alindogan: Why Whitman? My campus visit during my senior year solidified Whitman as my school of choice. Let me just say that Head Coach Michelle Ferenz is an amazing recruiter. By the end of one conversation, you are convinced that Whitman is the school for you.
The sense of family that Ferenz’s program prides itself on was exactly what I was looking for. Even to this day, I can see Ferenz’s motherly tendencies. She will call me “honey” or asks questions about my life because she cares about my well-being. She is not only a coach in the game of basketball, but in life as well.
I remember the first day I met my teammates like it was yesterday. We all went to captain’s practice to get a few scrimmages in and all the freshmen coincidentally arrived at the Sherwood Center at the same time. “I’m so nervous,” I remember saying. I still remember my first shot I ever made as a collegiate basketball player. I launched a jump shot on the left corner [and] to my surprise—swish—it went in.
Freshman and sophomore years proved to be extremely difficult for me. The adjustment to the collegiate game, especially in a high-caliber program, was mentally and physically exhausting. One upperclassman in particular, Jenn Keyes (’12), pushed me through my times of struggle. To this day, it is the thought of Keyes’s unconditional kindness that prevents me from giving up.
SA: After coming out of the sophomore slump and having two years under my belt, I had finally adjusted to the high intensity of the game. We started the year off with few expectations, only with the understanding that we had the potential to have a decent season. Little did we know, our season would far exceed our expectations.
The style of our game transitioned from just simply playing basketball to really understanding each other and how our skills worked together. There was a rhythmic flow to our game; it was almost like poetry on the court. We won some big games, even landing a spot in the national rankings, giving us hope for postseason play.
After losing in the NWC playoffs, we thought our season was over. It would be an understatement to say we were surprised and incredibly honored when we heard that we received a bid to the national tournament. This second chance inspired us to make the most of the experience and reminded us not to take any practice or game for granted, for you never know when your season could end.
MA: This season was a defining moment for the program’s history. We always knew that our team could compete on a national level, but for some reason, the pieces did not align until now. Throughout the season, we went in and out of the national rankings, won some crucial games, lost some close ones—but it was enough to get us a bid to the national tournament for the first time in our program’s history.
Yet, in the midst of all our team success, I suffered an ACL injury. The funny thing about injuries is that you, as an observer, can always sympathize, but you cannot truly understand until you have experienced it. All my life, I considered basketball to be the core of my identity and to have it taken away in a blink of an eye came as a shock to me.
Though I would have given anything to play, I could not have been any prouder of our team’s elite eight finish. It was our exit in the elite eight and my ACL injury that motivated me to come back stronger and better the following season.
The Big Finish: Senior Year
SA: With the success from last year, we were hungry to situate ourselves with the opportunity to get back to the tournament. Determined to prove that our run in the elite eight was not a fluke and that we deserved to be there, our work ethic and focus increased.
People would often ask what makes the team so successful. It is not just the fact that we give 110-percent effort every day and will do anything to improve, but the fact that we are always having fun. In between running lines [and] scrimmages that feel like they will never end, you can always hear our laughter rattling through Sherwood. Whether it is senior Meghan White’s (not so) hilarious jokes or dance parties in the weight room, when we are together as a team we are always having the time of our lives.
That is what made losing in the national championship so difficult. It wasn’t so much the fact that we let the championship slip through our fingers, but more so the realization that our time together as a team finally came to an end. As a senior, this thought was especially sobering. Regardless of the outcome of the game, win or lose, my career in basketball was going to end that day. And for anyone who has spent over half their life playing basketball, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
As the tears rolled down my cheeks, I had to remind myself not to dwell on just one loss, but look back at the success of the season as a whole: an undefeated regular season, Northwest Conference regular season championship, hosting sectionals, making it all the way to the national championship and all the memories in between. There is something to be so incredibly proud of.
With the season that we had, even though we didn’t win the national championship, I can’t help but still feel like a winner.
MA: I am so glad that we never know what is to come in life—my senior season was filled with one surprise after another. We began the season ranked 11th in the nation and eventually became first after beating other nationally ranked opponents, we had a 25-0 regular season and we won a Northwest Conference regular season championship.
When you are a senior, post-season is a very stressful time because any game can be your last. I was so lucky to be part of a team that shared the same sense of urgency. I had so much trust in my teammates that I secretly knew reaching the national championship game would be no problem.
However, once we lost the national championship game, I could not stop crying. I cried not because we lost, but because my journey was over. Coming in as a first-year, little did I know that my basketball career would end with me crying as confetti blew into the air at the national championship game. Though I wonder”what if” sometimes, I still would not change a thing.