Academics drives Western Nevada program as much as baseball does
Coaches love to talk about sports being almost as much of a mental game as it is a physical game.
Western Nevada coach D.J. Whittemore and the Wildcats baseball team take that approach to a whole new level.
The Wildcats have been one of the strongest junior college baseball programs since the team’s inception four years ago. The program’s success is highlighted by this year’s second appearance in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
Western Nevada has complied a record of 163-75-2 in its four years, but to Whittemore, those numbers are partially because of the Wildcats’ performance in the classroom.
“We feel having a smart baseball team is defiantly an advantage,” Whittemore said.
“Baseball is a game that requires intelligence.”
The Wildcats finished this past season with a 3.16 team GPA, which makes it the eighth straight semester Western Nevada’s baseball program has finished above a 3.0 as a team.
Not too bad considering the baseball program has only been around for four years — eight semesters.
“Players are well aware of our track record and expectations before they even decide to sign with us,” Whittemore said. “They know that if they don’t have a 2.5 GPA, we will take their scholarship away.”
The players have lived up to their end of the bargain, as the Wildcats have been selected as the NJCAA Academic Spring Team of the Year for the past four seasons.
Center fielder Mike Long has one of the highest GPAs on the team, marking a 3.94 this past semester. He has the grades to be selected to the Academic All-American team.
“It is a proud moment for everyone because guys put in hard work in the classroom and I think when they do that, it pays off on the field,” Long said. “Coach challenged us at the beginning of the semester to keep the academic tradition going, and we met the goal.”
Whittemore’s desire for success in the classroom comes from watching Stanford baseball when his brother-in-law, Billy Paganetti, was with the program in the early part of this decade.
“I was always blown away on how they seemed to beat more talented teams,” Whittemore said. “I came to the conclusion it was because they were smarter.
Playing team defense and base running are two things that require a great deal of intelligence.”
When Whittemore took his first head-coaching job at Western Nevada, he wanted to take the same approach to academics Stanford did.
“I thought it was a huge advantage to not have to worry about a player being eligible or ineligible, and whether guys are doing their homework at night,” Whittemore said.
“When you get guys that are dedicated to their studies, they tend to be good people and good citizens.”
One player who has taken to the Western Nevada approach has been catcher Jerome Peña. The sophomore from Cave Creek, Ariz., said he was pushed by his teammates to be successful in the classroom.
“It’s like a competition now who can get the highest GPA,” Pena said. “I don’t think I have heard of any other colleges that emphasize grades as much as our team does.”
Peña turned in a 3.75 GPA, as well as earning his associates degree this past year.
He served as an example of someone who took to heart the coach’s words. Pena graduated high school with a 2.5 GPA, but two solid years at Western help to earn a baseball scholarship to Texas Christian University.
“I had to get my grades up because in high school, it was all baseball. I didn’t ever think grades meant anything until I started talking to Division I schools,” Pena said.
“Coach says if you do well in the classroom, you will play well on the field and I believe that now.”
Lance Ray finished the year with a team-leading .366 batting average but that number wasn’t good enough to beat a 3.82 GPA. Ray is also one of 10 sophomores who earned their associates degree.
“The first day we came in last year coach told us he wanted us all to graduate,” Ray said. “He prides us on having good grades.”