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Student athletes feel ‘tossed aside’ after Whittier College ends NCAA Division III sports

Three students outside Graham Athletic Center.
Former lacrosse captain Alex Coco, with teammates Kale Lanza, left, and Noah Tobias, said he put in personal time to support younger players. “We have really ... wound up taking the brunt of this workload, while also being college kids.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Student athlete Caroline Valle, 20, started playing golf competitively at age 6 and was the first in her family to attend college.

Like many others, she chose Whittier College because it was close to home and had a reputation for academic and athletic success. As early as last summer, the private liberal arts college boasted 21 NCAA sports teams.

But then in the fall parents and students began hearing rumors about impending cuts to several sports programs. They were told that the programs were safe.

Then a week before Thanksgiving break, the school announced it would end 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 sports family.

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

Student athletes, like Valle, are still reeling from the news and are now scrambling to find new schools so they can continue playing the sports they love.

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

The college’s board of trustees said it made its decision after a three-year review process. The cuts were mainly due to financial considerations, according to a written statement from the administration. The operating costs of each program were not disclosed.

When Whittier College officials announced this week they would close their affiliated law school in Costa Mesa, students and faculty reacted with shock, outrage and some tears.

April 20, 2017

Students who joined the school during that review period feel like they were lied to as the school bragged about its sports programs, without revealing that they could be on the chopping block.

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

Board of trustees chair Miguel Santana told The Times the school spent roughly half a million dollars on the football program each year. But waning interest in the program — and game day attendance — has made it clear that football is not the draw that it used to be at Whittier College. The school estimates it will save $700,000 from the eliminated programs, which will be invested into “supporting student wellness,” Santana said.

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“The level of interest around football is different today than it was even a generation ago,” Santana said.

Football has been part of the school since 1907. As an undergraduate, future President Nixon played football at Whittier College. The Poets went on to win eight straight championship titles under future NFL coaches George Allen and future Hall of Famer Don Coryell in the 1950s and 1960s respectively.

But the Poets did not play in 2020 due to the pandemic and did not win any games in the season that started in 2021.

Freshman Zach Fernandes, 19, played offensive line for the football team and never felt like he was playing college-level football due to the lack of fans in the stands and support from the school.

“Overall, the whole experience for a lot of us was not what it was promised,” Fernandes said.

A quiet day on the campus of Whittier College on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022 in Whittier, CA.
WHITTIER, CA - NOVEMBER 23: A quiet day on the campus of Whittier College on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022 in Whittier, CA. Whittier College announced earlier this month it would end its football, lacrosse and golf programs. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Santana said the school acknowledges the decision to end the sports programs is a real loss to the school and the students, and he appreciates the commitment each of them made.

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

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

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

But there were some red flags for athletes in each of the sports programs that were cut.

Several football players bought their own helmets, Lopez said, because they were worried about the performance of the school-provided gear. They also felt like the football facilities were subpar compared to other sports programs.

Golf players said they seldom traveled out of state for tournaments, even though they were an NCAA team. When the women’s team competed in a tournament in Arizona this year, taking second place, they traveled by van.

“Golf is pretty cheap to keep up,” Valle said. “Especially because we’re buying most of our gear out of our own pocket.”

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

But Warme said after the initial pitch, the school offered minimal support to the program. She tried to get the school to address unsanitary housing conditions on campus and a lack of food options around the team’s practice schedule.

In May, Colin Warme heard from multiple high school coaches in Washington that Whittier was going to end its lacrosse program. Then the team’s coach abruptly left. During the search for a new coach, parents and students were left with no clear answers about the program.

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Jeanne Warme wanted the school to clarify whether the lacrosse team was in jeopardy of losing its NCAA status. She sent an email to the school’s athletic director, but never heard back.

“I did ask the quote, unquote, right question of the athletic director,” Warme said. “And they did not answer. They were not forthcoming.”

She said the lacrosse program offered her sons the opportunity to connect with a group of athletes who were just as passionate about the sport as they were.

“They were looking out for each other,” Warme said.

Veteran players with the lacrosse team say they put in their own personal time this year to support the younger players on the team, because of a lack of support from the college. The team went on to win 8-5 last season despite the turnaround with their coaching staff and a subsequent coach who lasted for less than two months.

Senior lacrosse captain Alex Coco, 21, wanted his teammates to feel like they were part of a high-quality sports program, and that included one-on-one meetings in person and over Zoom to reassure them.

“I promised them that no matter what happened this upcoming year, I’d have the best of their interest in mind,” Coco said. “We have really carried the slack and wound up taking the brunt of this workload, while also being college kids.”

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

Alumni who learned the school was cutting the lacrosse program criticized the school for not trying to raise funds through the alumni community. But Santana said even then the costs would have been too high to maintain the programs in an ongoing basis. The decision was made to ensure that other sports programs will be able to survive in the long term, Santana said. The school promised it would not be eliminating any additional programs, and that’s why the administration eliminated all three programs all at once.

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Santana noted that the school has a growing esports program, which involves athletes who play competitive video games, and the administration sees that as a place where the school can invest its resources.

The decision will be of little comfort to the students who have to scramble for a new school or choose to stay at Whittier but not play competitively.

Santana said the decision was not an easy one for the school.

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

Lacrosse and golf have one additional season at Whittier College before they’re gone for good.

Many of the affected student athletes who will not be graduating plan to stay at Whittier for one more semester, because it’s too late for them to transfer to another school.

Golfer Leanne Telle, 19, from Colorado is looking at other schools, preparing her portfolio and also studying for her finals.

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Like many of her peers, Telle is frustrated and unsure what her future holds. But like every competitive athlete, she’s finding grace under pressure.

“It really is not a good situation,” Telle said. “But I’m taking it in my stride. I’m just like, well, you know, my team, we’re going to band together, we’re going to shoot some really good numbers. We’re going to leave a legacy behind and we’re going to say that we left it all out on the course.”

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