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Whittier men's lacrosse.

'Challenge Accepted': Alumni Fundraising to Reinstate Whittier Men's Lacrosse

March 29, 2024
Kyle Devitte
Jin Peavey

In November 2022, Whittier College announced that it would sunset its men’s lacrosse program.

This news came just weeks after hiring a new head coach, but the team was cut — along with football and golf — in an effort that “aim[ed] to direct investment to the things that make Whittier College exceptional: our academic programs, our high-touch student experience including an expanded effort to support student Health and Wellness.”

That decision was pioneered by former Whittier president Linda Oubré. 

On May 12, 2023, Oubré resigned. A month later, Whittier alumna Kristine Dillon (Class of 1973) was named her interim successor. Thus, a renewed hope that the lacrosse team might have an easier path back to reinstatement was born.

While the path presented could not be described as easy, a roadmap back to reinstatement was provided by Dillon and the board of trustees — raise $145,000, and Whittier will bring the program back, first by applying to play in the MCLA with an eye toward a return to the NCAA if it proves sustainable.

Established in 1980, the Poets’ men’s lacrosse team was a member of the Western Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL) and captured 10 championships from 1980-99. Throughout the 1990s, Whittier also played many of the top NCAA Division III programs — often playing multiple games in a just a few days to stretch the travel budget — and earned national recognition from the USILA, helping to bring greater visibility to the sport in the West.

Whittier left the WCLL in 2000 to focus on chasing NCAA Division III tournament berths. The Poets reached the final four in 2003, the second round in 2002 and the first round in 2004 and 2016. The 2003 team was inducted into the Whittier Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018.

Whittier still has a varsity women's lacrosse program and is one of seven NCAA Division III women's lacrosse teams in California. 

The men's team faces tougher travel and budget concerns. Whittier’s closest NCAA Division III opponent in men's lacrosse is Colorado College, a school that is over 1,000 miles away from the coast of California. Travel costs are nothing new to Division III lacrosse programs, and flying over 1,000 miles to play your closest game is not light on any budget. 

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That explains why Whittier wasn’t an NCAA team for a long time. That WCLL success is what led to the Poets’ elevation to NCAA status the first time around. The alumni, with a singular fundraising initiative, hope to replicate that journey once again. 

“When we played in the early 90s, we were just transitioning, and I was still attracted to the program despite it not playing an NCAA schedule,” Whittier Class of 1995 graduate Jon Damm said. “That didn't come into existence until the late 90s. And now in the MCLA, it has come along even since then, when we were in the WCLL, that was all there was. If you won that championship, there wasn’t a tournament. Now with the MCLA, it's much more organized. If you can win the SLC, you get to go into the greater MCLA tournament.” 

Damm and Joe McCarthy (Class of 1997) are behind the effort. They both played on the team back when the program was still classified as a club in the 1990s. 

“I’ve been in communication with the new president and a few members of the board, and a big part of the last president's exit was the cutting of athletics,” McCarthy said. “What really woke up the alumni was cutting football, golf and lacrosse. For the alums of the 60s, it was football; for the 80s and 90s, it was lacrosse. I served on an athletics task force last summer. I did research, went through budget numbers, and after reviewing my memo, the college said, ‘If you can raise X amount of dollars, we can fund it.’

“I told them, ‘Challenge accepted.’”

Starting as an MCLA team would allow the college to rebuild the roster and help the schedule. From there, the college can make a more informed decision about rejoining the NCAA.

More programs are joining the NCAA in the region, such as Concordia University Irvine and Dominican University at the Division II level, but the real priority for everyone involved is to get the Whittier program back on solid footing.

“The administration is open to NCAA, but the best avenue to do that is to present for an MCLA team,” Damm said. “We didn’t want to push too hard, and they were very receptive. MCLA is good lacrosse. Out west, it is a vibrant league, and it's one of the only lacrosse leagues out there.”

Damm cited built-in rivalry opportunities as to why the Poets would look to join the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference in the MCLA’s Division I.

“There are seven teams in the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference, including Chapman, and the teams are close,” Damm said. “Chapman is in Orange County, and we are on the border of OC — they are our immediate rival. It’s nice to have a rivalry like that off the bat. It’s a good selling point.” 

To that end, the fundraising effort still has a long way to go in a short amount of time. While tens of thousands have been raised so far, the required mark has yet to be reached. The deadline to donate is May 7, 2024.

“It’s tragic that lacrosse is coming back to Los Angeles with the Olympics but the team that helped to pioneer the growth of the sport in the region isn’t playing,” Damm said. “We want Whittier to be there for that.”

If you would like to donate to help revive the Whittier men’s lacrosse program, the official donation link is active here until May 7.