Whitman, the tiny liberal-arts college known for academics, is the only NCAA school with an undefeated basketball team. The men are 30-0 after beating Hardin-Simmons on Friday in a Sweet 16 Division III showdown. The women's team also won Friday, beating Trinity University of Texas.
WALLA WALLA — Eric Bridgeland, the effervescent coach of the Whitman men’s basketball team, punctuates his sentences these days with phrases such as “It’s nutso’’ and “Crazy town, man” and “Who would have thought?”
Who would have thought, indeed? Who would have thought, for starters, that I’d be making the harrowing drive across Snoqualmie Pass into the desolate environs of southeast Washington this week to write a sports column about Whitman? Yeah, Whitman, the tiny (1,500 students, smaller than many high schools) liberal-arts college long renowned for academics, not athletics.
Then again, who would have thought that Whitman would be the only NCAA school at any level with an undefeated basketball team — a distinction it earned Feb. 25 when Gonzaga, located a mere two hours away, fell to BYU? The Whitman Blues (news flash: They’re no longer the Missionaries, as of last October) are top-ranked in NCAA Division III and 30-0 after beating Hardin-Simmons 102-82 on Friday in a Sweet 16 showdown.
And who would have thought, as I discovered, that an athletic renaissance of sorts has been taking place on this stately campus located, as Bridgeland cheerfully points out, “in the middle of nowhere”? Whitman has competitive squads across the spectrum, including a women’s basketball team that also is nationally ranked and headed to the Sweet 16. The women, who lost in the Division III national finals in 2013-14, also won Friday, beating Trinity University of Texas 69-59.
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Michelle Ferenz, the equally upbeat women’s coach who is in her 16th season, remembers what it used to be like. She arrived at Whitman from a coaching stint at Okanogan High School, “and I was a little taken aback by the lack of support. … There was always a core group who were very supportive of athletics, but it was kind of eye-opening. There was a lot of work to do.”
As athletic director Dean Snider says, “A couple of decades ago, I think the college may have bought into the dumb-jock myth. There’s a line of thinking out there you can’t be both, academically strong and a great athlete as well.”
At the behest of former president George Bridges, Whitman set about shattering that myth, using schools such as Williams, Amherst and Middlebury as its liberal-arts role models. Most folks pinpoint the acceleration of the turnaround to the formation of the W Club in 2008, masterminded by a group of 1966 alumni who wanted to invigorate the Whitman athletic programs and match the school’s academic prowess. It has produced almost $8 million in new athletic endowment in addition to an annual fund for operational costs, leading to facility and coaching upgrades as well as a needed infusion of energy.
Which brings us back to Bridgeland, who greets everyone like a long, lost friend. Sophomore Joey Hewitt remembers coming for his college visit while in high school and getting a big hug from Bridgeland, even though they hadn’t met before. When you’re going through the stresses of college life, that sort of relentless positivity can be a big deal.
“You might have guys going through a bunch of different stuff, whether it’s academics, family or whatever,’’ Hewitt said. “But when you come on the court, you know you’re going to get the same Coach Bridgeland every time.”
A steady turnaround
Whitman’s men’s team was coming off a one-win season when Bridgeland was hired away from Pepperdine in 2008. It had just one winning season in the previous 20 and long losing stretches against rivals such as Whitworth and Lewis and Clark.
It has been a steady rise since then, with the breakthrough coming last year when the Blues made it to the Sweet 16. Now they are eyeing a trip to the Final Four in Salem, Va., which likely will require them to beat Marietta College on its home court Saturday — even though Whitman is top-ranked and already beat Marietta on the road once this season.
Such are the vagaries (and some would say injustices) of Division III, but Bridgeland is characteristically undaunted about not being chosen to host this round.
“This team is ridiculously close and has so much fun on the road that it’s almost like born for us,’’ he said of the trip. “We’re doing back flips.”
Bridgeland, 45, says he never has had a team bond as tightly as this one. The players have “FAB” — Fight as Brothers — emblazoned on their uniforms. He points to a Saturday near New Year’s, when rather than going out partying, the players gathered at Bridgeland’s house on campus and had a March Madness pool of Disney Cartoons. They went through game-by-game matchups of all 64 entrants, featuring heated debates, until a winner was crowned.
“For starters, why would you ever come to Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington, at a liberal-arts college, where there’s no clubs downtown? You’d better be a relationships person, or you’re going to be miserable here,’’ Bridgeland said.
‘The Walla Walla bubble’
The camaraderie is a big part of what Bridgeland sells to recruits, along with, of course, the academic reputation of Whitman. He gives a brochure to prospective players detailing the post-career exploits of recent graduates, a few of whom are playing professionally overseas but most are succeeding in law, medicine, finance and other fields.
With the high entrance requirements, it’s a selective pool of potential players, particularly because there are no scholarships at Division III and Whitman costs $62,000 a year. Beyond that, there’s that whole Walla Walla thing. The name itself usually invokes either laughter or puzzlement from those outside the Northwest.
Casey Poe, a junior on the women’s team from Hawaii, remembers hearing Walla Walla in an episode of “Hanna Montana” when she was younger.
“I didn’t realize it was a real place,’’ she said. “I thought in the show they just made a funny name up. … Oh, Walla Walla is an actual place?”
“I was, like, Walla Walla? What’s that? What’s that even mean?’’ said Hewitt, who went to high school in Lafayette, Calif. “It’s definitely not something that has the appeal of a big school or a big college town. But once I got here and visited, it’s such a nice area, and everyone is so friendly. It’s almost like its own bubble — the Walla Walla bubble.”
That doesn’t appeal to everyone, of course, but to those looking for small-town virtues while getting an Ivy League-level education, it resonates for enough to lure many athletes who are recruited by bigger schools.
“We just tell them, ‘It’s different,’ ” Ferenz said. “You have to come see it. Walla Walla is hard to explain. The charms of it are kind of tangible. You have to see it. You’ve got to feel it. Once we get them here, it either fits or it doesn’t.”
Ferenz notes that Whitman’s academic rigor actually is a recruiting boost in that elite students already have the school on their radar. But, of course, the number of students who can even get into Whitman and afford it (even with merit scholarships and financial-aid grants) is self-limiting. But the recent athletic boost has helped Whitman compete against the Williamses and Amhersts of the world.
“It hurt recruiting (when they weren’t competitive), because students who want this type of experience academically and are also excellent athletes, they don’t want to settle for one or the other,’’ she said. “They want both, the combination.”
Which is why you get Whitman students such as Katie Gray, who played on the 2014 national runner-up squad and is now an astrophysicist studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue. On the day I was at Whitman, I talked to Alysse Ketner, a star on the women’s team who had come straight to practice from her senior oral examination in economics, and Christian McDonald, a pre-law student on the men’s team who had stayed up all night writing an essay.
This was the day before they left for the Sweet 16, mind you. It’s a delicate balance at a school such as Whitman, where, as Ferenz says, “Everyone here is smarter than I am, and they’re all going to go on and do great things.”
Somehow, they make it work. Neither Ferenz nor Bridgeland has had a student with academic ineligibility in a combined 26 years at the school. Snider points out proudly that athletes graduate at a 92.7 percent rate — higher than the rest of the college. Forty percent hold a 3.5 grade-point average or higher. Ferenz finds that her players’ competitiveness on the court extends to the classroom — they won’t allow themselves to fail.
“You cut certain things out that your average college student probably doesn’t have to cut out … like sleep,’’ McDonald said with a smile. “And fun. No, this is fun. That’s why we do it, to be honest. We don’t have athletic scholarships, but we do it because we like playing the game, and we like being around each other. The sacrifice is definitely worth it.”
Bridgeland likes to say basketball is the one element of his players’ life that doesn’t define them. He has cut back practices to twice a week so they can concentrate on their studies and rest their bodies from the rigors of the trapping, pressing, high-speed attack Whitman favors.
“Basketball’s the third thing,’’ he said. “Their academic and social well-being are country miles ahead of the athletics.”
No one around the Blues’ program can quite believe they have reached this point as the nation’s lone unbeaten. They’ve had numerous close calls, including an overtime win over No. 8 Whitworth for the conference title, and one game in which they were down by 10 with 5:31 remaining.
“We’re laughing in the huddle. Laughing,’’ Bridgeland said, incredulously. “We start making plays, and all of a sudden we’re winning. You can’t write a better story. There’s no pressure. We’re just having fun.”
And when it’s over, and the wild ride ends in either triumph or disappointment for Whitman’s basketball teams, they’ll pack up and head back to the middle of nowhere for studying, sports, cartoon countdowns and whatever else life holds in store at a place that, as Bridgeland said, “is four hours from everywhere.”