Whitman athletics team up with Walla Walla super fans

Emily Solomon, Sports Editor

From the basketball court to the soccer field to the golf course to the swimming pool, Whitman athletic events are community affairs. Whitman student athletes rely not only on family members and fellow students to cheer them on at matches, games and meets, but also their fans in the Walla Walla community who fill the stands.

Whitman College President Kathleen Murray can almost always be found front and center in Sherwood Athletic Center during Blues games. While there are other staff and faculty members from the college who regularly attend athletic events, many of the other seats are occupied by fans from the community. Some Walla Wallans who attend games used to go to Whitman or have children or grandchildren there, while others don’t necessarily have a direct connection to Whitman — other than a love of the game.

“Just being part of the community, everyone’s constantly cheering — that’s got to be my favorite part,” said Debi Toews, a 1976 Whitman graduate, retired attorney and avid attendee of basketball home games. An active cyclist, Toews has also served as the “team mom” for Whitman’s cycling team, a club sport, for about eight years. She loves supporting Whitman athletics, especially women’s athletics — she played many sports in high school, when equal opportunities weren’t available for women and men prior to the passage of Title IX.

“I think sports are a great way to unite the Whitman community and the greater community in town, and I see that in every game I attend,” Toews continued. “I notice people I know from town, many of them not even Whitman alumni, but still out there supporting the Whitman community in a huge way.”

Just as the Walla Walla community enjoys rooting for the college’s teams, players are buoyed by the rowdiness and hype that sports fans bring. Whitman assistant volleyball coach Taylor Stewart points to the home court advantage that this enthusiasm offers the athletes, adding that it is vital to have a lively crowd, especially in volleyball.

“Volleyball is such a loud and energetic sport, so when you don’t have energy in the gym, it becomes almost awkward,” Stewart said. “You can gain and hold lots of momentum in a game when you have a large student attendance. In general, the Walla Walla community is an important part of our college, so it is important to have that community on our campus and athletics are a great way to bridge that gap.”

Athletics aside, bridging the gap between Whitman and the greater Walla Walla community allows for building otherwise unlikely relationships. The bonds that are formed extend far beyond sports, Stewart said, and are significant even once athletic seasons are over. She believes these relationships between athletes and fans are more than just an added bonus of community attendance.

“The relationships that we build with our community are bigger than just our sports,” Stewart said. “It goes beyond that.”

The support goes both ways: Whitman’s varsity athletic teams also give back through community service both locally and on the road and have organized fundraisers for causes like cancer research. During a Final Four showdown on the east coast, the men’s basketball team took a break from practice to play bunco with residents of a center for adults with intellectual disabilities. And Whitman’s tennis teams often teach second graders at Edison and Sharpstein Elementary how to play the sport.

“I stayed in Walla Walla over the summer and I was able to go to a few softball games of a young girl whose family comes to all of our basketball games during the season,” said senior Whitman basketball player Makana Stone. “I was also able to watch her and her siblings play at the Peach Ball tournament.”

Stone, like many Whitman athletes, also participates in the Friends of Children of Walla Walla program, which pairs volunteers with kids in need of positive role models. Some of the kids then get to see their mentors in action playing their sport at the college level.

Being away from home is a challenge most college students face, so it is always helpful to have these community connections. Stone shared how grateful she is to have a dedicated fan base here that makes Walla Walla feel like home.

“The fans and community members who come to Whitman basketball games have really become family to me,” she said. “I have a large family back on Whidbey Island and even though they travel to many of my games, it’s still hard not seeing them all the time. But the Toews’ and many more of our consistent fans have become my Walla Walla family. They come to every home game and have invited us over multiple times for dinners and get togethers — they really extend a home away from home.”

If you are interested in coming out to support the teams in their upcoming winter seasons, visit whitman.edu/athletics for information and team schedules.