When it’s time to choose a college, student athletes have a lot to prioritize: a quality education, a great college experience, and the kind of athletics program that pushes them to compete hard and up their game.
The answer to that question usually isn’t a private liberal arts college. But California’s Whittier College—and its superstar Water Polo program—is leading a pack of Division III small colleges who are proving that student athletes can have the same kind of personalized mentorship in the locker room as they get in the classroom.
Whittier Water Polo has made a name for itself under Aquatic Director and Head Coach Justin Pudwill, named 2015’s Division III Coach of the Year. He led the Whittier men’s water polo team to not only win their division and a second straight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) Championship, but to secure a coveted spot in the NCAA Division I National Championships, competing—and holding their own—against teams like Loyola Marymount, Princeton, and UCLA.
Whittier’s women’s team, not to be outdone, were 2014-15 SCIAC champions, and have battled UC San Diego at NCAA Play-Ins.
They’re accolades reflective of the kind of ambitious, growth-focused leadership Whittier—and a growing number of its Division III small-college peers—have been quietly offering to student athletes. “It doesn’t make much sense to play teams you’re gonna beat 20-2,” Pudwill said in an interview with the Whittier Daily News. “(Division I schools) are the types of teams we want to play.”
The renaissance of Division III athletics isn’t limited to Whittier’s swimming pool. Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, a small, private Christian college, has won five national women’s soccer championships since 2005, and Ohio’s Kenyon College is a name fans of NCAA Division III swimming and diving will recognize.
The Kenyon College men’s team has only missed the DIII championship twice since 1980, and their James A. Steen Aquatic Center—named for the coach who first put them on the scoreboard—is stocked with state-of-the-art programmable pace clocks, resistance training mechanisms, and underwater cameras to break down and hone each swimmer’s technique.
But the real draw is what Whittier, Kenyon, and Messiah have to offer the student athlete outside the pool or the practice field: that same quality of ambition, attention to student growth, and rigor when they hit the classroom.
Whittier’s water polo program fits neatly in its liberal arts college ethic. Its 13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio encourages students to develop coaching relationships and mentorships academically as well as athletically, and Whittier displays its water polo championships next to alumni’s Fulbright Awards, Grammy Awards, Pushcart Prizes, and National Science Foundation grants.
With major programs offered in 31 fields, from Biochemistry and Physics to Creative Writing, Religious Studies, or Elementary Education, Whittier offers student athletes space to explore their multitude of interests, building cross-disciplinary insights and skills they can take into competition or the working world after graduation.
Overall, Whittier College is demonstrating why the liberal arts approach is making headway in the world of NCAA sports. Its focus on personal attention, students’ individual growth, and becoming one’s very best is racking up wins in college sports across the country—and is a great potential choice for student athletes looking to achieve both in the pool and out of it.
To learn more about Whittier College and their Water Polo program, visit this page.