A particular group of dedicated alumni, parents, students and friends of the college have been integral to the recent success of Whitman athletics. They are known as the W Club. But don’t call it a booster club.
By Edward Weinman
Since the W Club was founded, there have been a number of moments when Whitman commanded the sports world’s attention. Perhaps the most recognizable “take-notice” moment in recent history occurred when the Whitman men’s basketball team handed the first loss of the season to Whitworth, then the No. 1-ranked team in NCAA Division III, on Feb. 15, 2011. The men’s basketball team has improved its record year after year since the 2007-08 season.
There’s an athletic renaissance taking place at Whitman College. Over the past two years, Whitman has had 17 All-Americans, won five NWC Championships and sent 10 teams to the NCAA Division III postseason. This year, the college was ranked No. 2 in the conference in adjusted points per team, its best-ever finish.
This unprecedented success has come thanks to stellar coaches, an investment in facilities and a commitment to recruiting outstanding student-athletes.
Behind the scenes, however, a tightknit group known as the W Club is at the heart of this resurgence.
“Whitman is a special place and does a lot of things right, in terms of academics and extracurricular activities, but our record in athletics was spotty,” said Jock Edwards ’66, current president of the W Club.
“A group of alumni got together and said, ‘Let’s change this.’”
Changing the trajectory of Whitman athletics is exactly what the W Club has done in its brief, but successful, five-year history. Among just a few highlights from the past year, the men’s and women’s swimming teams sent athletes to nationals, where Galen Sollom-Brotherton ’14 finished second in the 500-yard freestyle; the men’s tennis team finished the season ranked No. 16 in the nation; and the women’s basketball team made it to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Division III tournament.
“The W Club helped us secure new resources over a period of time when resources on our campus were flat,” said Dean Snider, Whitman’s athletic director. “It has helped increase alumni giving, establish athletic endowments and spread the message about how important athletic programs are to alumni.
“I can’t overstate how important the W Club has been to our recent success,” he added.
But are athletics important to the success of a liberal arts college nationally recognized for academic excellence?
“The W Club is totally aligned with the mission of the college,” Edwards said. “When you combine the academic rigor with the capacity to compete in varsity athletics and all the qualities that takes, that’s a powerful mix in terms of the college taking kids and helping turn them into young men and women who are ready to be leaders in whatever field they choose.”
Not for a second has Whitman lowered its academic standards to bring in “ringers” in order to win games. The athletes placing Whitman on the national sports map are students first. Currently, the academic performance of Whitman’s student-athletes mirrors the college’s non-athletes, and the graduation rate for student-athletes exceeds that of non-athletes.
In addition to grades and graduation, Chris Garratt ’00, the executive director of Providence St. Mary Foundation, said students participate in experiential learning when they are involved in team sports.
“Whitman recognizes that a college education is not limited to the classroom and that students need to be involved in extracurricular activities,” Garratt said.
Garratt was the typical Whitman student with a diverse array of interests and activities. He majored in environmental studies and politics. He played baseball, sang in the opera and performed in theatre. Despite his myriad extracurricular experiences, it was as captain of the baseball team where he honed the leadership skills he uses on a daily basis directing Providence St. Mary Foundation, a non-profit that provides health care services to residents of Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon.
“As captain, I was put in a position to motivate my peers. It’s a practical skill, because when you’re in professional circumstances, there are times you have to motivate peers and get them organized, and it’s hard to replicate that in any other extracurricular activities. As an athlete you get this experience through trial and error,” Garratt said.
“Athletics is a laboratory for students to learn these skills.”
Athletics also develops the intangible human characteristic known as grit. This is one of the main reasons Edwards, a former economics major and two-sport athlete in baseball and basketball, is so passionate about leading the W Club in its efforts to enhance and support the role of varsity athletics at Whitman.
“Watch an Eric Bridgeland (men’s basketball) practice. It’s like watching George Patton doing tank exercises,” Edwards said. “Look at Jennifer Blomme in swimming, or Michelle Ferenz (women’s basketball) and Mike Washington (men’s soccer). They are all pretty demanding coaches. You’ve got to be disciplined. Be smart. Compete. Have grit. Work within a team structure. Recognize teammates’ strengths and complement them.
“Varsity athletics contribute to intellectual vitality, leadership, flexibility and a determination to succeed in a diverse and changing world,” Edwards said.
- Nancy Bratton Anderson ’86
- Susan E. Buxton ’85
- Jock Edwards ’66
- Gregory W. Forge, Parent ’11
- Julie A. Gaisford ’65
- Christ Garratt ’00
- Christina Pomeroy Grodem ’63
- Jerome L. Hillis ’61
- Eric S. Johnson ’72
- Kevin Koertje ’85
- F. James McCarthy ’63
- Lynn Greer McKelvey ’88
- James D. Michelson ’83
- James R. Moore ’66
- George R. Osborne, Jr. ’66
- Erin Pettersen ’08
- Charles E. Stookey ’66
- Max McKenna Weber ’08
- Catherine Highberg Williams ’70
The W Club is devoted to helping Whitman athletics meet the same level of excellence as the rest of the college. It provided funding that helped fuel athletics during the economic recession, assisted in paying for travel costs for teams and recruits, and made possible the hiring of assistant coaches. Snider said the addition of assistant coaches is evidence of how influential the W Club has been to the success of Whitman athletics.
“The W Club stepped up and funded assistant coach positions over a period of several years, providing the college time to build these positions into its budget. In every sport we hired an assistant coach, we’ve had success,” Snider said.
Though the W Club boosts athletics by raising funds, Edwards said it shouldn’t be mistaken for a booster club.
“The W Club is a community, a small component of the Whitman family consisting of people with common experience and common values that support the mission of the college through varsity athletics,” Edwards said.
By no means is the renaissance of Whitman’s athletics program over. Edwards, Garratt and Snider all agree that there is more work to be done. They said the current renovation of the tennis courts adjacent to Ankeny Field is a symbol of the rise of Whitman athletics.
“The tennis courts are sort of the culmination in the investment of facilities that has been taking place on campus,” Edwards said. “Look at the renovation of Sherwood Center, the Baker Ferguson Fitness Center, the baseball stadium or the pool. With the trend of the administration, governing boards and generous donors stepping up to support the expansion of varsity athletics, the renovation of the tennis courts is an exclamation point.”