Game changer

Whitman embraces volleyball job as first woman to coach a boys varsity team at Fenwick

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Matt Le Cren

Contributing Reporter

When Kate Whitman landed her dream job shortly after graduating from Illinois in 2005, she became a pioneer of sorts and didn't even realize it.

Whitman, a 2001 Fenwick graduate, returned to teach at her alma mater in 2005. The former Friar volleyball player also started her coaching career guiding the junior varsity boys volleyball team.

A year later, Whitman was elevated to head coach, becoming the first woman in school history to lead a boys varsity sport.

 "This is the job that I wanted," Whitman said. "They're going to have to drag me out of here."

To Whitman, coaching boys is no big deal. Now in her 11th season, she is having fun and so are the Friars, who see nothing strange in being coached by a woman.

"I've never really thought about it," Fenwick senior setter Will Sophie said. "I came to JV tryouts Day 1 (as a freshman) and I really didn't think much of it.

"We all respect her, we all look up to her and she's an excellent coach."

Sophie, who led the Friars to their first regional championship last year, gave Whitman perhaps the ultimate compliment in Chicago sports.

"I like to compare her to (Cubs manager) Joe Maddon because she likes to have fun," Sophie said. "But she also tells us to be ready to play."

Whitman and the Friars aren't ready to win it all like the Cubs, but young female coaches are changing the culture of boys sports, much like the Cubs franchise has transformed into a first-class organization.

While women coaching men is nothing new, significant barriers have been broken in recent years. The NFL and NBA have hired their first female assistant coaches and the wave of equality sweeping the country has affected sports at all levels.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in boys volleyball, which has more female head coaches than any other boys high school sport. Women run many of the top programs, including two-time defending state champion Glenbard West, where Christine Giunta-Mayer recently won her 300th game, Lyons Township and Naperville Central.

Since boys volleyball became sanctioned by the IHSA in 1992, female coaches have won 11 state titles and seven runner-up finishes. Both of last year's finalists were coached by women, the fifth time that has happened.

What is driving that? One reason is that girls have been playing organized volleyball since the 1970s, so they have more experience and thus are more likely to coach.

"I do think that is the case," Whitman said. "There aren't enough boys volleyball teams in the state to do (multiple) classes, so the sheer number of women playing volleyball is higher than the number of men playing volleyball.

"I think that it is going to eventually even out, but in the history of the sport more women have played so there is going to be more women in the (coaching) field and coaching men's teams."

Another reason is women like Whitman are good at their jobs. Many also coach girls volleyball – Whitman coaches the freshman girls at Fenwick – and move easily between the two sports despite the fact that coaching boys is different from coaching girls.

"It is two very different worlds," Whitman said. "Fourteen-year old girls and 17- and 18-year old boys are completely different universes.

"Obviously it takes a certain personality to do it. The boys are a little bit easier in terms of they don't take things personally.

"They know when they've done something wrong and they know when they deserve to run sprints or have to re-do a play. Girls learn that but it takes them a little bit longer."

While teaching the basics doesn't change, the boys game is faster and more physical than the girls game. That drew Whitman to it.

 "I love coaching the guys," Whitman said. "They're fun, the game is faster.

"Being used to the women's game, I did have to adjust to some things, specifically the speed of it. When the game gets as fast as it does at the varsity level, it's OK to get away from the fundamentals and it was a little bit hard to get used to that. Boys rely a lot more on instincts and athleticism than the form and fundamentals that you see with the girls."

Whitman has noticed another difference between genders.

 "The boys really, really want to win," Whitman said. "Girls get there, too, it just takes them a little longer because they can get nervous about things. The boys are never nervous."

The Friars never doubt where they stand with Whitman, who has gradually built the program up. Fenwick won its first Chicago Catholic League White Division championship in 2011 and has since won three more titles.

 "Everything she says is instructive, so everything she says you will learn from," Sophie said. "And she never gets down on you. She always says, 'OK, you can do this.'

"She has high expectations but at the same time she makes you feel like you're doing well. So it's never too hard, but it's always, you can do better."

Maddon has a famous saying, "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure," and that's a balance the Friars have attained under Whitman.

"When you're thinking too much about it you can't have as much fun and then you're not going to play as well," Fenwick senior right side Graham Rodgers said. "We experienced that last year.

"We were getting too down on ourselves and whenever that happens we don't do as well as we normally do. You've just got to keep pushing.

Whitman is adept at making sure the Friars do that.

 "She always wants you to reach your maximum potential," Rodgers said. "Like she'll point out little things in practice."

That attention to detail comes from coaching both boys and girls.

"It's good to have different perspectives," Whitman said. "Knowing the women's game definitely affects the way I coach these guys.

"I definitely expect things from them that maybe if I were a man who was only used to playing men's volleyball I would not. I'm very defensive-minded, I'm very picky about passing and I think that's a tendency of girls teams. That might be a result of a woman coaching a men's team."

 In a different era, some boys would challenge a female coach's authority. But that hasn't been Whitman's experience.

"I definitely think that there are only certain personalities that can handle this position," Whitman said. "I think that I have it, though.

"What makes it easy for me is that these are good kids. I'm very lucky with where I work and the kind of kids I work with and the way they were brought up.

 "They're kids that aren't going to disrespect anyone, whether it's a man or a woman, so that allows it to be easier for me.

"You have to get used to boys being silly and I didn't grow up with brothers, but it wasn't difficult at all. I kind of fell right into it and I've loved it ever since."

 

 

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