by Korey Hope
Whitworth athletics has had more ups and downs than a monitor displaying a healthy heartbeat — from a national championship in 1960 and 45 Northwest Conference titles in just the last 10 years, to almost being dropped from all sports competition in their conference almost 50 years ago.
Notable among the history of Whitworth athletics are Ross Cutter and Paul Merkel, both of whom coached at Whitworth.
Cutter first got a job as a physical education professor at Whitworth College in 1958, and then found himself coaching tennis for the Pirates in his second year with the school.
“I just kind of fell into the job,” Cutter said.
The dean at the time was Alvin Quall, who was also the coach of the tennis team in 1958. Quall, having a significant amount of responsibility on campus already, told Cutter he would coach the team beginning the next year.
“This was the middle of my first year,” Cutter said. “I’m not going to say I won’t.”
So, the Cal-Berkeley grad took over the Whitworth tennis program in 1959. Although he claims not to have had a tennis background fit for coaching, Cutter saw great success in his first few years as its head, which included a couple of tennis players making it into national semifinal spotlight. The tennis team also had victories over big-name schools such as Oregon State and Washington State, and gave the University of Washington a healthy scare in a dangerously close 4-3 loss, he said.
“There were just some great players when I got the job,” Cutter said.
Cutter continued to coach for more than 30 years, instilling team-building traditions such as inviting a campus figure, such as well-known professors or administrators, to handle the ceremonial opening of the game balls with a few words of encouragement before a home match, or urging his players to take their opponents to Graves Gym for a soda after their match, no matter how hard-fought or heated the match may have been.
The team’s success drew a huge part of the student body to matches, especially their barn-burner at home against the University of Washington, Cutter said. Each one of the team-building activities all the way up to the success that Cutter brought to this program, played a small part in bringing the Whitworth community closer together, he said. Whitworth’s Cutter Tennis Courts are named in honor of Cutter’s contributions to the school.
Paul Merkel was the coach of Whitworth’s first and only national championship team. Merkel lettered 11 times in football, basketball, baseball and tennis while earning two degrees at Whitworth. Beginning in 1955, Merkel coached Whitworth baseball and played other major roles for Whitworth until his retirement in 1990, according to The Spokesman-Review.
It wasn’t until the 1972 season that Pirate baseball joined the Northwest Conference. Merkel saw the program he formerly coached win a total of five NWC championships in the program’s first 12 years in the conference. That record was bested only by Linfield’s eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966, the longest such streak in 85 years of Northwest Conference baseball, according to the Northwest Conference website archives.
On top of his accomplishments with the baseball team, Merkel’s significant work behind the scenes ensured that Whitworth would continue to have an athletic program. When the school was still a part of the Evergreen Conference in the 1960s, Pirate athletics were about to be dropped from all sports competition due to failure in reaching the minimum number of sports needed to stay in the conference, according to The Spokesman-Review.
Merkel, Whitworth’s athletic director at the time, decided the school would form a swim team to save athletics. Merkel put a swim team in place and coached it himself, on top of being a large part of the baseball program as well as the athletic director. Merkel died Aug. 24, 2002 at the age of 80.
Though his time at Whitworth has come and gone, his name remains a part of Whitworth athletics. Whitworth’s baseball field is named Merkel Field in remembrance of Merkel’s services to the university.
Contact Korey Hope at firstname.lastname@example.org