In a disappointing loss to Whitworth on Saturday, the Whitman men’s basketball team’s season came to an abrupt end. Whitworth has now won the conference tournament seven years in a row. Whitman has shown the ability to beat the Pirates in recent years, but again fell short of a conference title this year. Although all of the seniors will leave voids to be filled, none are larger than the void being left by Drew Raher.
Raher was not the best player on Whitman’s team. He didn’t receive awards or honors like NWC Player of the Year Ben Eisenhart or his other teammates. But there is no doubt in my mind that Whitman would not have even made it to the championship against Whitworth without their starting forward.
Raher has played the same way since I came to Whitman his sophomore year: blurring the lines between scrappy and insane. Raher dives for balls, crashes the boards despite being undersized for a forward, and somehow finds his way into every key moment. Early in his career, Raher was a spark plug; a workhorse who could come into a game and use his physicality to set up his teammates to succeed. But it was not until this year that Raher became a true offense threat, lighting up three-pointers and driving to the lane like a blitzing linebacker filling a gap, only to lay the ball in with touch he did not have two years ago.
Raher built himself into the kind of player you couldn’t afford not to have on the court. He still roamed the court like a free safety, but when putting him in no longer meant sacrificing offensive production, he became a necessity for the team. With Coach Bridgeland’s high tempo offense and full court defense, Raher was able to create second-chance opportunities that led to free baskets.
No play sums up Raher’s playing career and its development like his second-chance layup against George Fox in the conference semifinals. On a loose ball, Raher dove onto the hardwood to tip the ball to a teammate. Moments later, the teammate hit Raher with a pass to the block where he finished the play with two points that could easily have never happened had he not put himself on the floor. The casual fan probably comes away from that game remembering Duckworth’s dunk or Eisenhart racking up points, but I hope there are people out there realizing what Raher is doing.
Raher is not the best athlete on the team. He is not the biggest or fastest, nor does he have the prettiest shot. He may never play at the next level. But Drew Raher has made himself into a great Division III basketball player and a vital piece to a team that turned a lot of heads this winter. He is the best competitor on the court at any given moment and I am utterly convinced he could be a key player on any of Whitman’s varsity or club teams. If he wanted to he could probably start on the baseball team or soccer team, make a lot of enemies on a Frisbee field, or make a lot of friends on a rugby pitch. Hard work and disregard of bodily harm seem transferable to almost every sport, and Coach Bridgeland is lucky Raher chose to apply his skills to basketball.
I don’t know how the team is going to replace him but they need to find something to compete with a school like Whitworth. To compete with an established program filled with talent like Whitworth, who has great shooters, ball handlers, rebounders and defenders, Whitman needs to have something they don’t. This year, it was Drew Raher. Whether Coach Bridgeland has the team practice penguin dives on hardwood floors at practice or finds a way to convince his younger players that the bruises and scrapes are worth it, someone needs to be a little more like Drew Raher. Maybe we all do.
I don’t mean to undermine the work of the other seniors in any way. Ryan Gilkey is a beast and physical presence Whitman will sorely lack, Peter Clark one of the best pure shooters I have seen in three seasons of Northwest Conference basketball, and Ignas can jump through the roof when he isn’t draining threes of his own. But you can recruit size, train shooters and develop physical athleticism. What I am skeptical of is the ability of the coaching staff to replace more intangible qualities like Drew Raher’s tenacity and competitive spirit. I hope they find a way.