Energized, skilled new Track & Field team aims to leave a mark on GLIAC

PNW’s biggest team is making a name for itself without actually stepping onto the field. 

The university’s new co-ed track and field team has recruited 80 athletes, nearly 40 more than originally planned, and the largest recruiting class in PNW history. 

“We are a full team with 81 individuals,” said newly appointed head coach Tom Whittaker. “The goal was 50 originally.”

As of fall, the combined men’s and women’s track and field team is the largest athletic program on campus and is more than double the next biggest program. 

“I think it is great the numbers that we are at,” he said. “This is actually the biggest team I have ever coached. I have had some smaller teams.”

To build a program from the ground up, bringing in the right student-athletes is the first step to future success. Recruiting could make or break a program, especially in its inaugural year. 

For Whittaker, it was a walk in the park. 

“It was easy to recruit, not going to lie,” said Whittaker. “I think it is a testament to how great the school is. PNW does a great job of really making sure that the students are put first and that there are a lot of opportunities for all students and student-athletes. It is affordable with a great degree.”

PNW Athletic Director Rick Costello said he’s thrilled with Whittaker’s efforts to build a team. 

“I am so proud of Coach Whittaker and his amazing efforts,” he said. “I think it speaks a lot to what we got going on as a metropolitan institution. The great value that we provide, great education, the majors that we are now offering.”

Some athletes are also aware of Whittaker’s work. 

“He is a very hardworking guy,” said senior runner Christina Shaginaw. “From recruiting to pushing out workouts to us. He is really into what he does and knows plenty about running and athletics as a whole.”

Her twin sister Holly, a senior runner, agrees.

“Coach Whittaker and his staff have been great from the start,” she said. “They always go above and beyond to help us improve our running and to better us as individuals.”

Whittaker replaced Austin Warner, PNW’s cross country coach who last year was named to the additional job of track and field coach. Warner left the university during the summer to become head track and field coach at the University of Chicago Laboratory School.

With the team currently in its pre-season, Whittaker is gearing the squad up for its first official competition in early December. 

“I am excited to see how they progress throughout this fall season,” he said. “We got about two months before our first meet, so I am excited to see what they do.” 

Though the team is large in numbers, three-fifths of the students are freshmen.

“It is a very young squad,” he said. “But it looks like it’s going to be a strong group. They want to compete at a high level.

“We are a new team, but we are not an inexperienced team,” he said. “We are going to bring in all of our efforts and be competitive in the conference. I do have some people that are coming in that are comparable to some of the top people in the conference from last year.”

The team is unusual because it was added during the pandemic, while many schools were trimming athletics. ESPN reported that, between March and November of 2020, 352 NCAA sports programs were cut.

While some of larger schools reinstated 11 athletic programs, the rest remained shuttered because schools lacked resources. 

PNW’s decision to add track and field creates another field of competition with other schools in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC), which has several strong track and field teams.

PNW will compete with eight women’s teams and 11 men’s teams in GLIAC.  

“I am not focused on them,” Whittaker said. “I am focused on progressing these kids. The message has been that we are a family, and we are going to work hard with each other because that’s what we got to do.”

Junior sprinter and hurdler, Jonathan Davis, is expecting a successful season for the squad. 

“In this indoor season as a team, we all feel that we will be a top three team in the conference,” he said. “And we are coming for Grand Valley.” 

Christina Shaginaw agrees. 

“You should expect big things from the squad,” she said. “The track team comes from all around the states and from previous colleges so there is definitely great talent here.”