by Justin Busby
Before 1995, athletes attending Whatcom Community College either had to play for other colleges or not play at all. That changed when basketball became the first sport to represent Whatcom in the Northwest Athletic Conference.
In anticipation of adding sports to the curriculum, a $3.3 million pavilion gym was built in the center of campus. Then-president Harold Heiner was eager to fill it with a sports program and both a men’s team and a women’s team was formed for the 1996-97 academic year.
Becky Rawlings, who is now Human Resources Director for Whatcom, was the first head coach for the women’s basketball team. She got the job through her brother-in-law Ken Crawford who was the coach and creator of the men’s program.
“I thought I was going to be coaching for three to four years just to get that experience after playing at Western and coaching around the area, but 12 years later is when I finally gave it up,” Rawlings said. “I enjoyed it very, very much.”
Rawlings and Crawford also helped develop the team identity of the orca that represents Whatcom to this day. In a special student election in the 1990s, the orca barely beat out wolverine by 11 points in the final election. Other choices were the slug and the wood duck.
Artist Scott Wilmont, under the oversight of Rawlings and Crawford, created the Whatcom Orca logo for the basketball teams in 1996 before their first season. The Orca remains the current logo for all athletics and activities on campus.
For the next two decades basketball would go on to become Whatcom’s most popular sport on campus, with the women winning Whatcom’s first division title in 2001, and the men making their first appearance in an NWAC championship game in 2015.
The basketball program has earned a total of six division titles and celebrated its 20th year this season.
During the college’s evolution to a centralized location, president Heiner advocated for the need for sports as another way to take pride in Whatcom as an institution.
Volleyball followed basketball shortly after with the first season in the fall of 1999. It only took four years for Whatcom to become a dominant force in volleyball, winning four division titles in a five-year span, including an NWAC championship game in 2007. Volleyball would add another division title in 2010 to bring Whatcom’s total up to five.
In 2003, Harold Heiner then turned his attention to soccer because of its international affiliation and global interest, and began the process of building Orca field.
Orca Field finished construction in 2005 just in time for the first season of men’s soccer at Whatcom.
Whatcom soccer made an instant impact on the division and conference, finishing first in the division five times in a row and winning the NWAC Championship in 2006, the first for Whatcom and just one year after the addition of the program.
Women’s soccer, the newest sport on the Whatcom roster, would not be added until 2008, but would claim a division title almost immediately in 2009. Soccer has six division titles and one conference title.
The question of adding spring sports is one that comes up every so often.
Mike Langey, former athletic director and director of student programs and athletics from 2003-2010, said a lot goes into bringing a sport to campus.
“First and most importantly, there must be a student and/or faculty investment in the program,” he said. “For any activity on campus, activities and recreation coordinators need to see a representation of or interest in an activity. Without this initial interest, the program board won’t consider adding the sport.”
The second factor is having a faculty comparable to the body of student-athlete population. When soccer was added in 2005 and 2008, that doubled the number of athletes the athletic director, registrar, and other staff had to work with.
“The big reason for why we didn’t add a spring sport while I was here was the staffing issue,” Langey said. “Whatcom has always operated with a pretty lean staff, but when we added soccer, we saw a tremendous workload increase in athletics, and across the faculty for such things as financial aid and advising.”
The final factor is cost and infrastructure, he said. Whatcom’s central campus has limited spots for developing more sport structures, so the solution is to contract outside campus and budget accordingly. Sports such as baseball and softball could be played at Joe Martin Field in Bellingham’s Civic Complex on Lakeway or golf could be played at one of golf courses, he added.
Langey, who currently works for the Whatcom Foundation, is still actively involved in the history of Whatcom athletics. He says he’s looking forward to seeing what sport comes next and thinks maybe golf, track, or cross country, but that any sport is good.
Langey said long distance running or track, is a “low-cost, dollarwise” sport because anyone can join and there’s little infrastructure needed.
Whatcom had both men’s and women’s cross-country teams in fall 2007-08, but the teams were scrapped for the 2009 season.
Langey said he believes the Great Recession played a part in that decision, resulting in the cuts. He also said that lack of community interest may have been to blame at the time.
Whatever the past or future of sports at Whatcom, Langey said he believes that the choice to add these programs to the college curriculum was a good idea.
“It’s an excellent means to help student development,” he said. “Students learn individual responsibility, teamwork, work ethic, time management, all sorts of things that will help them later in life. I also think that the opportunity to compete is what brings people to college to get a good education.”