Varsity Teams Give Back to Community

Mitchell Smith

Visitors in the Sherwood Athletic Center on Sunday, Oct. 20 saw the varsity gym full of basketball players going through rigorous dribbling and shooting drills and scrimmaging to improve their skills. Were these players the men’s varsity basketball team, beginning their preparation for the fast approaching season? Not exactly. Instead of an age range of 18 to 22, these athletes, numbering 44 total, were ages eight to 14, and instead of attending Whitman College, they came from everywhere around Walla Walla.

Photo by Rachael Barton

This event was one of five leadership-based basketball clinics that Whitman Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Matt Airy has put on this year with the help of other coaches and players on the team. The clinic, called “Together We Can,” is in its sixth year at Whitman, and is focused on teaching life skills through basketball. It is also one of many camps held by varsity teams across all sports at Whitman.

“What we have is an emphasis on leadership every day. Whether that’s showing good body language, whether that’s getting put ups, or being in next play mode, where we’re not dwelling on successes or failures, but we’re moving on to what’s next and being very focused,” said Airy.

The camp doesn’t just teach these skills to the most gifted athletes, but is open to anyone within the age range. Leadership, according to Airy, is something that can be taught no matter the skill level.

“The leadership emphasis is a factor no matter what your ability levels are. That’s something that is universal that everybody can take with them,” he said.

Airy was struck by the huge growth that kids in the camps have made over the last few years, becoming the leaders the camp has helped teach them to be.

“What’s neat now is to see kids that have been in the clinics and camps from five years ago who are doing their last couple sessions and they’re leading it. We don’t have to teach as much because the younger kids will look at what the older kids are doing and emulate it. You feel like you’re making an impact when you start to see kids already knowing and living out the emphasis on leadership,” he said.

Just down the hall in the auxiliary gym, another basketball practice was going on. This one featured members of the Whitman women’s basketball team coaching a camp similar to the one in the main gym. This time, though, the participants were local girls. The camp is one of many put on by the women’s basketball team, and it has been going on for the past five years under Head Women’s Basketball Coach Michelle Ferenz.

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Photo by Rachael Barton

Ferenz loves the camps because they have a lasting value both to her team and to the community.

“It’s really about building relationships and promoting the game,” she said. “But it’s not a one-way street. It’s valuable for our players … to have the opportunity to teach the game and be role models.”

While the number of participants in the clinics put on by the women’s team is considerably less than the men’s (on Oct. 20 there were only five girls and over 40 boys), this small size helps the coaches and players at the girls’ camp focus on the main point of the camp: individual skills.

“They’re meant for skill development,” said Ferenz. However, in the end, there is much more to these camps than just skills.

“Honestly, it’s giving back to the community,” said Ferenz. She repeated multiple times the team’s emphasis on being a resource for the community.

This emphasis is something that is not just seen on Whitman’s basketball courts, but on the soccer fields, the tennis courts and the baseball diamond as well. In fact, most of the sports at Whitman have some sort of way that they give back, something that has become more of a trend in recent years. Airy, who played basketball for Whitman from 2000 to 2004, noticed that the community outreach was nothing like it is now.

“I think Whitman athletics in general have never had a better relationship with the community,” said Airy. Ferenz sees this as part of a larger trend involving the entire school.

“I think we’re modeling what the college has always tried to promote,” she said, “I think the community sees Whitman as a resource. They love having Whitman students involved in things, and we’re just trying to follow suit.”

Another part of the emphasis on reaching out to the community is a series of tennis lessons taught by Chelsea Patton, an assistant coach of the women’s tennis team. She is currently in charge of a revamped youth tennis lesson schedule that serves as the primary tennis program for Walla Walla youths.

“There aren’t a whole lot of resources [in the area] for kids’ tennis,” she said. This past week was the opening of the lessons, and the turnout has been modest so far, with between six and eight kids showing up each time. The turnout should improve with time. Next week Patton and Head Women’s Tennis Coach John Hein plan to visit local elementary schools to play tennis with second graders, just another part of Whitman’s school-wide initiative to give back to the community.

All three of these camps rely on strong community support to be able to put them on at little to no cost for the kids. This year is the second straight year that the basketball clinic has been free of charge, due to a grant given by the George T. Welch Testamentary Trust. In addition to this, both the women’s basketball team and tennis team have built strong relationships within the community that allow them to reach out to the local youth who may be interested in camps or lessons.

The next time an unsuspecting visitor walks into Sherwood and assumes that varsity basketball practice is taking place, that visitor could instead be hearing the sounds of a community bonding with its school, or possibly even the next Missionary basketball star learning the tools of the trade.