Student athletes reeling from Whittier College sports cuts

Athlete Caroline Valle, 20, started playing golf at the age of 6 and was the first in her family to go to college.

Like many others, she chose Whittier College because it was close to home and known for its academic and athletic success. Last summer, the private Liberal Arts College had 21 NCAA sports teams.

But then, in the fall, parents and students heard rumors of upcoming cuts to several sports programs. They were told the programs were safe.

Then, a week before Thanksgiving, the school announced that it was ending its NCAA Division III football, lacrosse, and golf programs. The decision affected 120 student-athletes and about a dozen coaches who were part of the Whittier College Poets family of sports.

“I feel like my whole life’s work has just been eroded,” Valle said.

Still shaken by the news, student athletes like Valle are now looking to new schools so they can continue playing the sport they love.

“Not getting a proper reason from college makes me feel like I’ve been cast aside,” she said.

The college’s board of trustees said it made its decision after a three-year review process. According to a written statement by the administration, the cuts were made primarily for financial reasons. Operating costs for each program were not disclosed.

Students who joined the school during this review period feel lied to when the school boasted about its athletic programs without revealing that they might be on the chopping block.

“I definitely wouldn’t have chosen the school if I knew there was even a small chance it would be cut,” said 19-year-old freshman quarterback Adam Pinard. “That was the most frustrating part. It didn’t just happen out of nowhere.”

Board of Trustees Chairman Miguel Santana told the Times the school spends about half a million dollars on the football program each year. But waning interest in the program – and attendance on game day – has made it clear that football is no longer the attraction that Whittier College used to be. The school estimates that the canceled programs will save it $700,000, which will be invested in “supporting student well-being,” Santana said.

“The interest in football is different today than it was a generation ago,” said Santana.

Football has been part of the school since 1907. As a student, future President Nixon played soccer at Whittier College. The Poets won eight straight championship titles in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, under future NFL coach George Allen and future Hall of Famer Don Coryell.

But the Poets didn’t play in 2020 due to the pandemic and didn’t win any games in the season that began in 2021.

Freshman Zach Fuentes, 19, played offensive line for the soccer team and never felt like playing college-level soccer due to a lack of fans in the stands and school support.

“Overall, for many of us, the whole experience wasn’t what it promised,” Fuentes said.

A quiet day at the Whittier College campus on Wednesday, November 23, 2022 in Whittier, CA.

WHITTIER, CA – NOVEMBER 23: A quiet day at Whittier College campus on Wednesday November 23, 2022 in Whittier, CA. Whittier College announced earlier this month that it was ending its soccer, lacrosse and golf programs. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Santana said the school recognizes that the decision to end the athletic programs is a real loss for the school and the students, and he appreciates the commitment each of them has made.

“I would hope that this athlete [Fuentes] and all of our athletes would realize that this is a very special place that truly cares about each student, that sees the student as more than an athlete,” said Santana.

Michael Lopez, 21, played wide receiver for the soccer team, and looking back on the season felt like he’d found camaraderie among his peers and coaching staff.

“I had teammates and coaches who were willing to fight for each other, who were willing to fight for me,” Lopez said.

But there were some red flags for athletes in each of the abridged athletic programs.

Several soccer players bought their own helmets, Lopez said, because they were concerned about the performance of gear provided by the school. They also felt that the football facilities were below par compared to other sports programs.

Golfers said they rarely traveled abroad for tournaments despite being an NCAA team. When the women’s team competed in a tournament in Arizona this year and took second place, they traveled by van.

“Golf is pretty cheap to keep,” Valle said. “Mostly because we buy most of our gear out of pocket.”

Jeanne Warme’s sons, sophomore Colin and freshman Caleb, both chose Whittier College for their lacrosse programs. Whittier Poets is the only NCAA lacrosse program on the West Coast, so it was a natural choice for the Washington state Warme family.

But Warme said after the first pitch the school provided minimal support for the program. She tried to get the school to address the unsanitary living conditions on campus and the lack of food options around the team’s training schedule.

In May, Colin Warme heard from several high school coaches in Washington that Whittier was ending his lacrosse program. Then the coach of the team left abruptly. When looking for a new trainer, parents and students were left with no clear answers about the program.

Jeanne Warme wanted the school to clarify whether the lacrosse team could lose its NCAA status. She emailed the school’s athletic director but never got a reply.

“I asked the sporting director the unquoted, correct question,” Warme said. “And they didn’t answer. They weren’t ready.”

She said the lacrosse program gave her sons a chance to connect with a group of athletes who were just as passionate about the sport as she was.

“They looked out for each other,” Warme said.

Veteran players on the lacrosse team say they’ve been investing their own personal time this year to support the younger players on the team because they lack college support. The team won 8-5 last season despite the turnaround with its coaching staff and a subsequent coach that lasted less than two months.

Senior lacrosse captain Alex Coco, 21, wanted his teammates to feel like they were part of a quality sports program and that included in-person one-on-ones and via Zoom to put their minds at ease.

“I promised them that no matter what happened in the coming year, I would have my eye on what’s best for them,” Coco said. “We really carried the doldrums and ended up bearing the brunt of that workload while also being college kids.”

College officials said the decision to cut athletic programs should benefit the rest of the student body. Santana points out that since the lacrosse program was the only West Coast team, their closest competitors were in the Rocky Mountains and other teams are further east. The cost of these teams is too high to justify compared to the rest of the college, he said.

Alumni, learning that the school was cutting the lacrosse program, criticized the school for not attempting to raise funds through the alumni community. But Santana said even then, the cost would have been too high to sustain the programs on an ongoing basis. The decision was made to ensure other sports programs can survive over the long term, Santana said. The school promised not to cut any additional programs, so the administration canceled all three programs at once.

Santana noted that the school has a growing eSports program involving athletes playing competitive video games, and the administration sees this as a place for the school to invest its resources.

The decision will offer little consolation to students who are trying to find a new school or who must choose to remain at Whittier but not play competitively.

Santana said the decision was not easy for the school.

“As CEO, I could say I’m sorry that our students and our athletes who are impacted are impacted the way they are,” Santana said. “I wish we didn’t have to make these difficult decisions.”

Lacrosse and golf have an extra season at Whittier College before disappearing for good.

Many of the affected athletic students who do not graduate plan to stay at Whittier for another semester because it is too late for them to transfer to another school.

Golfer Leanne Telle, 19, from Colorado looks at other schools, prepares her portfolio and is also studying for her final exam.

Like many of her peers, Telle is frustrated and unsure of what her future holds. But like any competitive athlete, she finds grace under pressure.

“It’s really not a good situation,” Telle said. “But I take it easy. I’m just like, well, you know, my team, we’re going to team up, we’re going to do some really good numbers. We will leave a legacy and we will say that we left everything out on the course.” Student athletes reeling from Whittier College sports cuts

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