Stefan Whittingham emerges as star in sophomore season

Webster University sophomore forward Stefan Whittingham lines up a free throw in a Feb. 4 game against Eureka College. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS.

Stefan Whittingham and two of his teammates from Ft. Lauderdale High School — Thomas Evans and Claude Hanlan — were all recruited to play for the Webster University men’s basketball team. After their first year of basketball last season, Evans and Hanlan quit basketball and returned to Florida. Whittingham said he was tempted to follow in their footsteps, but returned for his sophomore season.

“I didn’t want to give up basketball,” Whittingham said. “They were willing to give up basketball. I wasn’t ready yet.”

Whittingham, a 6-foot-3-inch forward, was the last of the three to be recruited by Webster coach Chris Bunch. Evans visited first, then Hanlan and lastly Whittingham. Perhaps perceived as the afterthought of the trio, Whittingham has proven his worth this season.

“Normally in that situation, when you have two or three guys all coming from one school, a lot of times that doesn’t work out,” Bunch said. “It was kind of odd in this case that the third guy that came is the one that’s done so well for us.”

As of Feb. 14, Whittingham leads the Gorloks in points (15.0 per game), rebounding (8.1 per game) and minutes played (32.8 per game). As a freshman, Whittingham saw playing time in only 15 of 27 games, as he averaged nine minutes a contest. Due to a crowded bench and a wealth of seniors who played forward, Whittingham wasn’t able to show his capabilities.

“Him being a freshman and kind of learning what we were doing, he really just wasn’t ready to jump in there ahead of those other guys that had been here and knew what we were doing,” Bunch said. “I had hoped this year he would maybe flourish and become a lot better, and he has.”

On a team with no seniors, Whittingham has stepped up this year as one of the leaders of the team. It’s a position he’s been in before.

“In high school, I was a captain, too, so it’s like I’m just moving back into the role I was playing earlier,” Whittingham said.

Bunch described Whittingham as “a very quiet, unassuming individual.” Whittingham has a high basketball IQ and understands what Bunch wants out of him and the team. However, Bunch said Whittingham’s low-key personality limits his leadership potential.

“His personality being what it is, I think it’s sometimes hard for him to speak out to everybody,” Bunch said. “That’s just kind of not his personality. As he gets more comfortable with that, he’ll become an even better leader.”

Without any seniors on this year’s team, Bunch knew somebody had to step up to be one of the leaders. While Whittingham is only a sophomore, Bunch saw his potential.

“I tried to tell him at the beginning of the year, ‘Even though you’re a sophomore, there aren’t five or six seniors this year,’” Bunch said. “‘Somebody is going to have to be a leader. Why not you?’”

Whittingham drives at a Blackburn College defender during the Gorloks’ 67-62 win on Jan. 28 in Carlinville, Ill. Whittingham leads Webster in minutes played (32.8 per game), scoring (15.0 points per game) and rebounds (8.1 per game). He has led the Gorloks to a 10-12 overall record and a 10-3 mark in the SLIAC. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS.

Whittingham may not be as vocal as Bunch would like, but he implements what Bunch wants and quietly leads the team when he’s on the floor.

“During games, I tell people to keep their head up,” Whittingham said. “Make sure nobody gets disappointed in what they’re doing. Pretty much try to be coach Bunch on the floor.”

So far this season, Whittingham has shot 49 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range and 71 percent from the free-throw line. According to Bunch, Whittingham is the team’s best combination of outside and inside scoring.

Whittingham averages nearly 11 field goal attempts a game, which is about the amount of two other players — junior forward Roman Robinson and junior guard Dietrick Sooter — who each average five minutes less a game than Whittingham.

“I’ve encouraged the guys we’ve got to find him more,” Bunch said. “He needs to get more shots. He is very unassuming. He’ll just go out there and play. You look at other team’s leading scorers, and they get mad if they don’t get the ball three to four trips down the court. Stefan will play five minutes and not take a shot and never say a word. He’ll just keep playing.”

When Webster does need a basket, Bunch and the Gorloks call upon Whittingham to produce.

“We kind of look to him when we need a big basket,” Bunch said. “He’s definitely our go-to guy, or at least one of them.”

At the end of Webster’s game against Greenville College on Jan. 18, the Gorloks had the ball and trailed 86-85 with 17 seconds left. Bunch called a timeout and drew up a play specifically for Whittingham. Whittingham drove to the basket and missed a layup, but he put back the rebound to give Webster an 87-86 lead with five seconds left. The Gorloks held on for the one-point win.

Being the player who needs to score when the game is on the line can be a lot of pressure for Whittingham, but he embraces the role.

“It feels good knowing I’m a go-to guy and that coach trusts me to make big plays,” Whittingham said.

Bunch expects a lot out of Whittingham because he sees the sophomore’s potential.

“Sometimes to him, and maybe to the people in the crowd watching, I’m hard on him,” Bunch said. “But it’s because I know he’s not anywhere near that ceiling yet.”

Based on his numbers and the Gorloks’ conference success this season, Whittingham is in the running for the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year award. In the SLIAC, Whittingham ranks fourth in scoring (15.0 ppg) and third in rebounding (8.1 rpg). In games against SLIAC opponents, Whittingham ranks second in both scoring (16.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg).

“I’m not really thinking about (winning SLIAC Player of the Year), but it would be a nice accomplishment,” Whittingham said. “I’m going to continue to play the role that I have to play. Score points when points need to be scored. Grab rebounds when rebounds are needed. Do everything that coach tells me, because he knows what we need to do to win the game. As long as I’m listening to coach, we’ll get the job done.”

With three games remaining in the regular season, Webster is second in the SLIAC with a 10-3 conference record. Whittingham looks to lead the Gorloks to a conference championship not only this year, but the next two years as well.

“I feel I can make a lot happen for our team, and we can possibly win the conference this year and the following years,” Whittingham said.

As good as Whittingham has been for the Gorloks this season, with his junior and senior seasons still in store, Whittingham has the potential to develop into a truly special player.

“I think the sky is the limit for him,” Bunch said. “As soon as the season is over, he’ll be in the weight room and at the gym working on his game. He’s great, and he does some great things out there right now, but he’s still just scratching the surface on how good he can become. He can be an exceptional player by his junior and senior year if he’ll keep working hard.”

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