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WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- When Jeff Northam returned to the Whitman College campus during the summer of 1997, he brought understandably high expectations to his role as coach of the men's tennis team.
A decade earlier, Northam was a key player on Whitman tennis teams that captured three Northwest Conference titles and maintained a high profile in national small-college rankings.
"We want to be one of the top NCAA Div. III tennis programs in the country, and there are good reasons why we should be," Northam said.
"We have a strong tennis tradition here, and we have one of the best indoor tennis facilities in the country," he said. "Whitman is one of the top academic schools in the nation, and we want to be just as successful in tennis."
Northam, a 1988 Whitman graduate, returned to campus as Director of Tennis as well as coach of the men's team. As tennis director, he supervises day-to-day operation of the indoor Bratton Tennis Center and maintains overall administrative responsibility for the women's team. He also teaches physical education classes.
Before coming to Whitman, Northam spent the previous year as men's and women's tennis coach at Montana State University-Bozeman, where he led both teams to winning records and their most successful seasons in school history.
While Northam enjoyed his brief stint in Bozeman, the demands of running an NCAA Div. I tennis program were hard on family life. "Between traveling with two teams and recruiting, I spent 30 to 35 weeks on the road," he said. "That is too much time away from home for someone who wants to raise a family."
Northam, who is married to Jennifer Dilworth Northam (Whitman Class of 1991), also has family ties to eastern Washington. He is a 1984 graduate of Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, Wash., and his parents, Ted and Marci Northam, still live in nearby Finley, Wash. Northam also has a sister, Patsy Northam, who teaches math at Pasco High School.
"Family considerations were important in my decision to return to Whitman," he said. "At the same time, I've always wanted to coach at an academic school like Whitman, where I played and went to school. The coaching position here also was attractive because Whitman has a great group of young coaches, and because we really do have one of the best indoor tennis facilities in the nation."
The $1.2 million Walter A. Bratton Tennis Center, which opened in early 1996, incorporates four indoor courts within a 28,000-square-foot frame. The courts have a cushioned surface, and the building features heating, locker rooms and a viewing area.
"Very few schools have indoor facilities with those types of features," Northam said. "With the exception of the universities of Washington and Utah in the West and Notre Dame in the East, I don't know of any schools with facilities as good as ours."
After completing his bachelor's degree in economics in 1988, Northam remained at Whitman for three years as an admission officer. He also served as a part-time coach for the men's tennis team in the spring of 1990 and again in 1993 and 1994.
Northam was the Director of Tennis at the Walla Walla Country Club from 1991 through 1994. He relocated to Boise State University in the fall of 1994 to study for a master's degree and work as assistant coach in the women's tennis program. He continued his master's degree (Exercise and Sports Studies) program during the 1995-96 academic year, when he worked as assistant in the men's tennis program.
"Not everyone realizes this, but Boise State University has one of the strongest NCAA Division I tennis programs in the country," Northam said. "My time there gave me the opportunity to learn from one of the nation's best coaches, Greg Patton. This past spring, for example, the Boise State men's team beat UCLA in Los Angeles. It was only the second time this decade that UCLA had lost at home."
The Whitman men's tennis team also achieved a notable "first" during Northam's playing days. In 1987, Whitman became the first Northwest college or university in nearly 20 years to beat the University of Washington in a dual match.
"Our teams enjoyed a lot of success during those years, but the victory over the Huskies was certainly the highlight of my college career, and I think it was for most of our players," he said. "It was a tremendous accomplishment for a non-scholarship school like Whitman to beat the Huskies in Seattle."
Northam won his No. 4 singles match in straight sets against the University of Washington before he and a teammate lost the No. 3 doubles match in three sets. He played most of his college career at No. 5 or No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles, helping Whitman roll to a 76-25 won-loss record from 1985 through 1988.
Whitman made its strongest showing in 1986, winning 19 of its first 20 matches to climb to No. 2 in the NCAA Div. III national poll. The Missionaries qualified for the national championship tournament and advanced to the semifinals before losing. They ended the season with a 22-5 record.
Northam has been active in the Pacific Northwest chapter of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA), serving as its treasurer from 1991 to 1995. He was named USPTA Professional of the Year for the Pacific Northwest region in 1993 and again in 2001.
In 1995 Northam was an alternate for the Idaho Sneakers, one of the teams in the World Team Tennis organization founded by Billie Jean King. The league has teams throughout the country and attracts such older stars as John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova as well as younger professionals on the rise.