When asked about his favorite memory as head coach of the Pitzer-Pomona men’s soccer program, Bill Swartz, a 26-year member of the Sagehen community, offers a quick smile and an easy answer.
“1990 was our first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) championship,” remembers Swartz. “My first recruiting class won the championship game against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS). Don Wolcott scored a turn-around, top of the key goal in overtime.”
Coach Swartz smiles at the memory. “We had some great players on that team, many of whom are still in contact with me today. They worked hard and trusted me through some rough times, and we bounced back.”
Swartz’s sentiment is shared by Sarah Queener, currently in her third year as head coach of the women’s lacrosse team.
“Our game this past Saturday is a great memory because it’s the first time our program has ever been the #1 seed going into the SCIAC tournament,” says Queener. “The trips we’ve taken also include some great memories. We’ve always been able to go to a player’s house during each road trip, and this past year, we even had an impromptu talent show during our stay in Seattle. These are the moments that make us the team we are.”
The common theme is, of course, the multidimensional student athletes who make up the Pitzer-Pomona Intercollegiate Athletics Program, which currently fields 10 varsity sports for men and 11 for women. According to senior lacrosse player Jana London, the program offers a unique experience for student athletes.
“I’m a student athlete, and the student part comes first,” said London in a recent interview. “That’s something that I was definitely looking for in schools, so it’s awesome to be part of a program where you are respected for what you do on the field and in the classroom. The professors and coaches respect both aspects of your life.”
The Saghens are a founding member of SCIAC, which was formed in 1915 along with rival schools Occidental College, Whittier College, the University of Redlands and Throop University (now the California Institute of Technology). SCIAC currently boasts 9 teams, including the University of La Verne, California Lutheran University, Chapman University and arch-rivals Claremont-Mudd Scripps.
The close proximity of the member schools leads to a better experience for Sagehen athletes, according to Coach Queener.
“We have the ability to provide the best student athlete experience at the top of Division III,” explains Queener. “Look at our travel schedule. Most teams travel up to 6 hours on a weekday and have multiple weekend trips.”
The longest trip the Sagehens make is to California Lutheran University, only an hour away by bus.
Another unique aspect of the program is the fact that the Sagehens are fielded by athletes from two colleges, Pitzer and Pomona, which share classes and campus resources while maintaining distinctive academic identities and missions.
“We have two great schools that we’re able to recruit to, where the student experiences are different,” says Coach Queener. “We have athletes who are drawn to Pitzer, and to the Pitzer community…we get so many community-minded kids that want to make a difference. We have a team full of student athletes who are first and foremost passionate about everything. They’re also driven…and when you get passionate, driven people coming together, it makes for a great experience.”
So how does the Division III athletic experience differ from Division I?
“The difference between the two divisions is philosophical,” explains Coach Swartz. “Division I is for the fans, and Division III is for the athletes. Division III focuses on the whole person. At the end of the day, I want you to feel like your athletic experience was equal to or better than your classroom experience. It’s about making sure that I present the best opportunity for students to excel at that sport.”
Playing for the Sagehens, athletes are not expected to sacrifice their academic pursuits in favor of athletic ones. According to Swartz, “Athletics are co-curricular, not extra-curricular,” a fact echoed by Coach Queener.
“All of the athletic programs are structured around a student-first experience, and we’re able to get kids out to practice when they’re able, so they’re not missing class time,” explains Queener. “Our approach is reflected in the team’s academic success. We were the top academic women’s lacrosse team last year. The system works here.”
According to London, the ability to balance academics and athletics was a huge selling point in her decision to attend Pitzer.
“You can have balance here,” says London. “While at Pitzer, I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, despite playing two sports. You couldn’t go abroad at other schools. Here, you’re able to have balance in your life…sports provided balance for me.”
Sagehen student-athletes exercise and train at the Liliore Green Rains Center for Sport and Recreation, which houses two gymnasiums, with four regulation basketball courts; racquetball, squash and handball courts; and a weight-training and cardio facility. Near the Rains Center are 14 all-weather tennis courts; two soccer fields; an all-weather track and field facility; baseball and softball diamonds, and a football field. The Halderman Aquatics Center has a 50-meter Olympic-size pool with one-and three-meter diving boards, locker rooms and training rooms.
The Colleges also provide athletic opportunities for students through intramural competition and physical education. Each year, approximately 900 students compete in 17 intramural sports (including indoor soccer, inner-tube water polo and racquetball) and 12 club sports (including Ultimate Frisbee and rugby). Club sports are organized by students of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges.
Since the early days of SCIAC, the Sagehens have enjoyed a great deal of success, with multiple conference championships in basketball, volleyball and men’s soccer. The Sagehen cross country team went to the National Championships last year, while the men’s water polo team has won the SCIAC championship two of the past three years. This year, the women’s water polo team advanced to the finals, and Coach Queener’s lacrosse team enters the SCIAC tournament as the #1 seed.
“I give every player in the program the opportunity to win a league championship,” explains Coach Swartz. “We’ve won every five years or so. The student-athletes feel like it’s been a competitive, successful program. I tell them, every academic competes because they have to publish. Competition is good. Every time you write a thesis or take a test, you’re competing.”
According to Swartz, the Sagehens can expect to be even better in the future.
“Athletically, in my 26 years, our teams and coaches have gotten better and better,” explains Coach Swartz. “We have very strong junior staff in the coaching ranks who work hard and are knowledgeable, and who believe in their students’ abilities and teach them how to win.”
So what do the Sagehens coaches look for in prospective student-athletes? According to Swartz and Queener, it isn’t just raw athletic talent.
“I look for the ability to deal with setbacks,” says Coach Swartz. “You might come in as an impact player, but if you have to play behind someone else first, you do you deal with the disappointment? You need to have the resiliency to work through it so that your talent can meet your opportunity. I want to know, how do you respond when opportunity isn’t there? Are you mentally prepared for opportunity? Are you motivated to do your best in whatever you do?
The key to being a successful student athlete, according to Coach Queener, is passion.
“You learn very quickly whether the athlete is passionate,” explains Queener. “I like to see athleticism, but I don’t want to see athletes who are worn out from the club grind. I look for driven students with a unique sense of themselves, more so than other 16 or 17-year olds. They know more about what they want and who they are, and what they’re looking for in a college.”
But recruiting is not a one-way street. Coach Swartz urges prospective student athletes to think long and hard about the type of coach for whom they want to play.
“Student-athletes should ask, what were my coaches like throughout my formative years? What were their personality traits, what did they do to get my attention?” says Swartz. “What’s the personality of the coach? Are they a hard coach, a nice coach, or a business-like coach? I try to give my recruits a flavor of me when I meet with them.”
Swartz also points out that coaches need to be honest and direct with the student-athletes whom they are recruiting. “Coaches need to meet with players and be honest with them,” declares Swartz. “Honesty equals care, and care equals trust. You’ve got to train, work hard, learn, and grab opportunity. Does the coach have a plan? Do you have the opportunity to ask questions?”
So how should prospective student-athletes go about getting in touch with coaches?
“Everybody has e-mail, so that makes things easy,” says Coach Queener. “In your introductory e-mail, it’s helpful to include things that are going to be important, like what you’re looking for in a college, a copy of your high school transcript, and test scores, if you’re planning on using them.”
Queener adds, “An activities resume is also important. Follow up if you don’t hear back from the coach, and don’t be afraid to make a phone call. If you’re interested, make sure the coach knows it, and don’t be afraid to try a couple of times, if needed.”
Visiting the campus is also key, according to Queener. “Really find time to go visit the campus,” says Queener. “My athletes love to be able to meet with prospective athletes, talk to them and see if they would fit in on our team.”
Ultimately, for the Sagehen coaches, the most rewarding part of their jobs is teaching student-athletes to be better than they think they can be.
“I enjoy working with the players and stretching myself,” says Swartz. “I enjoy bringing something new to my teams. I like that feeling that I’m doing something to improve athletic life and make soccer at Pomona-Pitzer better.”
Queener, who begins her fourth year as head coach next spring, is excited about what the future holds for her lacrosse program.
“I’m very excited about our future!” exclaims Queener. “We’re definitely going to miss our seniors – they’re amazing leaders and have been the biggest part in the development in our program…they’re such passionate lacrosse kids! But we have a few studs coming in, so hopefully we can continue to build on the success we’ve had the last few years and keep this going.”
For all their success, it’s easy to overlook a simple question about Sagehen athletes – namely, how did they choose their mascot, defined as a large, ground-dwelling bird that can reach up to 30 inches in length and two feet in height?
Among the many legends surrounding the mascot’s origins, one oft-told tale has that a reporter, while intending to refer to the Pomona-Pitzer teams as “sage Huns,” accidentally typed “hens” instead. Largely dismissed as a myth, it seems more likely the name stuck because of the actual existence of sagehens in Southern California.
Regardless of the mascot, the Pitzer-Pomona Intercollegiate Athletic Program offers student-athletes the unique opportunity to excel both inside and outside of the classroom, while developing lasting relationships with their coaches and teammates, relationships that last well beyond graduation.
Coach Swartz puts it best. Why do student-athletes enjoy playing for the Sagehens?
He smiles. “Because it’s fun.”
For more information about the Pitzer-Pomona Intercollegiate Athletic Program, or to fill out a Recruit Form, please visit http://pe.pomona.edu/landing/index.