Tommy Richards believes failure is key to success.
"It's about taking risks and getting out of your comfort zone," said Richards, Whitman assistant baseball coach. "I try to take that same approach with the team. I want to make sure we're challenging them to the point they're failing and getting out of their comfort zone."
Failure, Richards said, leads to continual growth and improvement, and the Whitman baseball team has made big improvements in recent years. Last spring, the Blues had their most successful season yet — winning their first Northwest Conference Tournament championship title and competing in their first NCAA Division III Baseball Tournament.
Baseball Head Coach Brian Kitamura '10 said the team's full-time assistant coaching staff has contributed greatly to the team's historic performance. Assistant coaches include Richards, who works with hitters and infielders, and Nolan Parks, who focuses on hitters and outfielders.
"It's vital for our program to have assistant coaches for many reasons, but the primary one being the relationships built with our student-athletes," Kitamura said. "Our players really benefit from working with our coaches on a daily basis in season, which allows us to truly help them develop to the best of their ability on and off the field."
In addition to providing skills development and player support, assistant coaches juggle many other responsibilities: they help recruit players, lead team strength training and conditioning, coordinate team travel and manage equipment. Assistants also act as a sounding board for head coaches and add a valuable voice to the team's overall coaching strategy.
"I view my role as a jack-of-all-trades," Richards said. "As assistant coaches, we have our hands in so many different parts of the program."
Richards, a former infielder for Washington State University and the Baltimore Orioles, joined the Whitman baseball coaching staff in 2016. His connection to the Blues traces back to serving as a bat boy when his older brother, Danny Richards '03, played for the team — a time when paid assistants weren't on the coaching roster.
"There's such a vast difference between the baseball program now and what it looked like when my brother was playing," Richards said. "Having more full-time assistant coaches today, you can just see things have really changed."
Baseball is one of six sports that have assistant coaching positions funded in part by the W Club, a group of alumni, parents and Whitman supporters who raise funds for Whitman Athletics.
W Club President Lynn McKelvey '88, a Whitman Hall of Fame tennis player, said the assistant coaching initiative has had "an amazing impact for our teams."
"The whole point of anything that we do for the athletes is to improve the student-athlete experience," she said. "It isn't about winning - winning is a result of all the hard work and everything that they do. Our students are successful just because they are Whitman students and they work hard.
"We're trying to give them these opportunities to make the experience even better for them," McKelvey said. "They have that in the academic world, and we want to provide the athlete the same opportunity to have that raised, elevated experience in the athletic field as well."
Donor support of assistant coaches has made a tremendous difference for Whitman Athletics since as early as 2009, said Michelle Ferenz, women's basketball head coach and former interim athletic director, but there is still more work to be done.
"This initiative has made the most significant impact on Whitman Athletics than any other item in my 20 years here," Ferenz said. "But we need to continue to build it so that all of our programs can have the full-time assistants they need. We're getting there, but we're not there yet."
Volleyball Assistant Coach Taylor Stewart is now in her third season with the team. A former two-sport college athlete who comes from a long line of teachers and coaches, Stewart is passionate about coaching and hopes that her current part-time position will eventually become a full-time career.
"I am here to teach, and to do it passionately and enthusiastically through the sport of volleyball," she said. "It's my duty to help develop authentic, confident, resilient and selfless people - with a healthy self-esteem and a whole lot of grit."
The job can be demanding with long hours and behind-the-scenes work, but the reward is much greater.
"The biggest motivator for me is just seeing our students succeed in the classroom or reach an epic goal in practice, in a game, or in the weight room, and they are so proud that they immediately want to share it with me," Stewart said. "Seeing our players learning, growing and evolving in every aspect of themselves - that's pretty awesome. When their experience is great, mine is even greater."