Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Sherwood renovations spark new direction for Whitman athletics

“I think things are starting to change in athletics,” said women’s basketball coach Michelle Ferenz while she stuffed the contents of her office into boxes as she prepared to move out of Sherwood before renovation begins. The Sherwood renovation, set to start over spring break, has helped usher in an attitude of optimism among the athletics department.

“It’s like how a child doesn’t see themselves grow, and if you’re around the child all the time you don’t notice it. But if you go away for three weeks or a year or whatever you come back and notice real growth. We’re in one of those stages where we’re seeing some significant growth,” said athletic director Dean Snider.

Over the past years, Whitman’s perceived underperformance in athletics has discouraged students and coaches alike.

“A Whitman education is about excellence: all-around excellence: and for a while we’ve had emphasis on excellence in academics and many other programs, but just now we have an administration that believes that if you’re going to have an athletic program, it should fit into that goal of excellence,” said Snider.

With a few exceptions, Whitman’s athletic teams have not enjoyed competitive success. In the Northwest Conference Whitman has never won the all-sports championship. Aside from men’s tennis, the last conference championship Whitman took home was women’s basketball in 2004. Other sports, like baseball, haven’t had a championship since 1952. Men’s soccer’s last conference championship was in 1981.

“When you’re the most academic, and also the most isolated school [in the conference], and also our tuition’s a little higher than some of the schools…you have the smallest pool of potential athletes,” said men’s basketball coach Skip Molitor.

“Whitman has such high academic standards and it’s very clear what students fit in here…so it’s kind of self-selecting,” said volleyball coach Carolyn Papineau.

“As a coach, sometimes you want athletics to be the thing,” said Papineau, “but it’s just one of the pieces that adds to an application.”

“Basically we’re looking for difference-makers who will come on campus and get involved in a variety of different areas,” said admissions officer Anne Thatcher. “We definitely value our athletes just like we would many other factors in the admissions process. I don’t think athletics get more weight.”

Coaches must ensure any potential athlete could fit into Whitman academically, socially and athletically before fully pursuing them. Coaches then provide a ranked list for the admissions office of their top recruits, which is taken into consideration, although coaches have no direct input into the admissions process.

Several coaches noted that there has been more difficulty finding qualified male student-athletes as of late.
“I think there’s a national trend as liberal arts colleges are being filled with more women than men,” said Snider. “The pool for recruiting young men is smaller and more restrictive. I don’t want to use that as any kind of excuse… There have been challenges in finding academically and athletically competitive male athletes and I think our coaching staff has found them.”

While not able to offer athletic scholarships, coaches can entice students by helping them hunt down more financial aid: a process which some student-athletes say Whitman seems to shun.

“Other schools really try and encourage student athletes to come and give [the athletes] a little extra help financially and with other things like early registration because they recognize how much athletics bring to the overall college experience,” said one athlete who requested to remain anonymous. “Whitman tends to be kind of snobby about that. I think they feel like any recognition of athletics somehow compromises their image as a top academic institution. They don’t see the huge benefits that good athletics bring to everything: including academics.”

“A good portion of our student-athletes get merit- and need-based financial aid…So they do get money, it just doesn’t come from an athletic standpoint,” said Snider.

Despite the difficulties in recruiting top athletes, the process seems to work.

“It’s been very refreshing to deal with student-athletes who are legitimate student-athletes,” said Molitor, who has been involved with five different Division I institutions. “It’d be nice to win more games, but it’s great to be with people who really want to do something great with their lives.”

Coaches and athletes alike see the recent improvements to facilities as symbolic to a new commitment to athletics at Whitman.

“We need to have competitive facilities if we want to be able to compete for student-athletes with Carleton, Pomona, Pitzer, Colorado College and the other schools that we compete with for students,” said Ferenz.

“Our facilities, when they’re done, are going to be ‘Wow, amazing!'” said Ferenz.

Snider noted the new Harvey pool and the increased success of the swimming programs lately. “Excellent facilities encourage excellent athletics,” said Snider.

Whitman also is in the process of starting up The W Club, a branch of the alumni association. “It will be specific to support of Whitman College athletics,” said Snider. “[The W Club will] financially find ways to increase the competitive experience, where you have a chance to win every night.”

Coaches and athletes noted that Whitman may finally be on the right path athletically, but there’s still a ways to go.

“If we want to be competitive in our conference and beyond…there are a few things Whitman needs to move toward,” said one coach, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Maybe earlier notification for admissions…we lose a lot of athletes who get nervous, because a lot of other schools will let them know if they’re in sooner.”

Snider hoped to help the athletic department connect more with the Walla Walla community. “We have things to gain from the community and we have things to give,” he said.

Everyone interviewed said they would love to see more fans at athletic events.

“It would be wonderful if all our games were like our last home game. It’s fun for everyone: fun for students, fun for athletes, fun for opponents.” said Mollitor.

“I’m really pleased with where we’re at. We’re moving on several different fronts,” said Snider. “I’d love to encourage our student body to jump on the bandwagon and support student athletics.”

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