Two years ago, Athletic Director and then-Head Football Coach Mike Whalen stood in front of the entire freshman class during orientation, as we got ready to take our grade picture.
“I want to be very clear about something,” Whalen said, stressing the gravity of what was about to follow. “We never ‘fight’ at Wesleyan, unless it’s against Amherst or Williams. Now repeat after me…”
And that was the first time I ever heard the Wesleyan fight song.
It wasn’t too long after that that I was at the first student-athlete meeting in the imposing Tishler Lecture Hall. Whalen stood before over one hundred first-year athletes and explained what it meant to be a “Wesleyan University Student Athlete.” He emphasized not only excellence on the athletic field and in the classroom, but also within the Wesleyan community. His words about the vital importance of every class and practice to the greater goal of success have stuck with me throughout my time at Wesleyan.
Whalen came over from Williams in 2010 to be the head football coach. He immediately brought a tradition of excellence and commitment with him, which he made discernable in all aspects of Wesleyan athletics. Whalen’s football program steadily improved into a NESCAC powerhouse. Before his arrival, the Cardinals fought through a 3-5 season. Four years later, in 2013, Wesleyan went 7-1, won the Little Three title and a share of the NESCAC title. That NESCAC championship was Wesleyan’s first since 1997. Last fall, the team again posted a 7-1 record, the program’s first back-to-back 7-1 seasons since 1947-48. They also beat in-state rival Trinity for the first time since 2000.
The Trinity game showcased Wesleyan’s renewed love for its athletic teams. Though known for an apathetic approach to athletics and for being an overwhelmingly “hipster” school, as emphasized by the slogan “Keep Wes Weird,” the student body showed an incredible amount of pride in beating the Bantams that day. The stands were packed with current students and alumni, and the roars from Andrus Field could be heard across campus after the victory.
I recently sat down with Whalen to get a clearer picture of the origin of this success.
“Everything starts at the top with President Roth and the board of trustees,” he said. “Under Roth, Wesleyan has strived for excellence in every phase of our students experience, and athletics is no exception to that.”
However, athletic success does not happen overnight.
“There are a lot of variables that go into athletic success,” Whalen said. “First and foremost is providing student-athletes with the highest level of coaching and mentoring that we can. Another is the support we have received from our alumni who have reengaged in our university.”
NESCAC titles have become almost commonplace on campus, thanks in large part to the factors outlined by Whalen. Since arriving in Middletown two years ago, I have witnessed four titles: one in football, one in basketball, and two in baseball.
Whalen believes that winning is contagious between programs and expects titles in other, historically weaker Wesleyan programs.
“More programs are seeing the success that other programs are having, and it’s contagious,” he said. “Athletes want to win.”
To get a sense of how Whalen has transformed the program through his interactions with players, I talked with a captain on the football team, Blake Cunningham ’16.
“The coaches are great at reaching out to high school kids who are interested in becoming part of a championship program as well as getting a valuable liberal arts degree,” Cunningham said. “The team’s recent success has also provided more incentive for recruits to apply to Wesleyan.”
Cunningham also spoke to the mindset that the current team possesses.
“We have a large group of guys that are extremely committed to our program and great coaches who push us to succeed everyday,” he said. “As long as the work ethic and drive are there for the players, Wesleyan will stay a winning program.”
The winning culture appears to have infected numerous athletic programs across campus. Last year, the Cardinals’ baseball team won its second straight NESCAC championship and earned its second straight NCAA tournament berth. The last NCAA berth for Wesleyan before 2014 was in 1994. The program continues to push their boundaries this year. Last month, the squad topped a Division I baseball team, Yale, at the 150th anniversary of baseball programs at the two colleges.
A strong core of seniors who have embraced the new view of athletic excellence with open arms is leading this change. They have developed a vision that the team is greater than a collection of individuals.
“It is hard to describe the feeling of being part of a dog pile with your closest friends after achieving a goal that you set eight months earlier,” said catcher Eric Jones ’16. “Aside from the feeling of your ribs being crushed, the overwhelming sense of accomplishment is what comes to mind. All of the hard work the team put in during the fall and winter is absolutely worth it.”
The 2014 NESCAC Coach of the Year Mark Woodworth played an instrumental role in leading the Cardinals down the challenging road to success in the NESCAC.
“Our coaches do a great job of keeping us in the moment,” Jones said. “This allows us to focus on the immediate task at hand and this ability to slow down the game has been instrumental to our success. The most important play of any game is the one that is currently happening. This mentality ensures that the team’s focus in on the current play, inning, game, or series.”
Woodworth is a prime example of the mold of responsible mentor and high quality coach that Whalen strives to see in his athletic programs.
The most exciting of the recent NESCAC championship victories was perhaps basketball’s storybook run last winter. Ranked as a lowly sixth seed in the NESCAC tournament, the Cardinals shocked the conference and won it all, becoming the lowest seed to ever win the competition.
On the way to hoisting the trophy, the Cardinals defeated the number-one seed and bitter rival Trinity on the road. The very next day they defeated powerhouse and Little Three rival Amherst 74-70 in OT, clinching a first-ever NCAA tournament bid.
Just as in football, the Wesleyan student body embraced the basketball team’s success. Playing in an incredibly hostile environment, a busload of Wesleyan students and a handful of stragglers made the trek to Trinity’s Ogrodnik Court to support their Cardinals. When the game had ended, hundreds of Trinity fans stood in complete shock and disbelief that Cinderella Wesleyan had just ended the Bantams championship hopes. The traveling Wesleyan faithfuls then rushed the court and celebrated with the players. It was truly surreal to see this excitement coming from a school whose relationship with athletics often seems ambivalent.
However, the athletic success Wesleyan has enjoyed under Whalen does not stop at those three sports. Every program, from swimming and diving to crew, has seen enormous improvement since he took office.
One team in particular that is experiencing a rapid improvement is the tennis program. Head Coach Mark Fried has transformed the program from a perennial NESCAC bottom-dweller to a legitimate contender for the national championship. Last year, the women appeared in their first NESCAC tournament since 2007-08, and Eudice Chong ’18 captured the NCAA DIII national title in women’s singles.
“The team today, and the whole Wesleyan tennis program in general, is almost unrecognizable from when I joined as a freshman,” said captain Maddie James ’16. “Coach Fried has completely turned the program around, and it’s been amazing to be a part of it at such an important and pivotal time.”
These days, each recruiting class, both men’s and women’s, seems to improve on the one before it.
“Coach Fried has done an incredible job with recruiting the past couple of years, which has resulted in really strong freshman classes,” James said. “The continued success of our program will definitely draw more and more top-tier recruits to Wesleyan, which will help build on the strong foundation we’ve created the past couple of years”
Being competitive in the NESCAC conference has become increasingly difficult over the last decade.
“The NESCAC is the best division III league in the country hands down,” Coach Whalen asserted adamantly. “It’s hard to win championships in this league; you have to be really committed to doing so. The key is to take it in steps. The league is so competitive that it’s a process, it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The last four years have certainty been very exciting for everyone involved in Wesleyan athletics, especially the athletes themselves. For many programs, the foundation for a championship team has been laid down. With all the work that the University is putting into athletics, it is safe to say that there are plenty more NESCAC championships in Wesleyan’s near future.