Oct. 23, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
College coaches are often defined by wins and losses. For first year volunteer assistant softball coach and former Gamecock All-American Tina Plew Whitlock, the unexpected death of her husband 13 years ago was a huge loss, but her life has since been defined by perseverance. She credits her experience as a student-athlete at South Carolina, along with her faith and the relationships she established at the school, as reasons for making it through the tough times.
“You learn the skills of perseverance and resiliency,” Whitlock said. “I established a network of friends here that I could trust and would be friends with for a lifetime. It prepared me for going after and facing big challenges. It also reminded me that I always had a place I could come back to that was home. It taught me about loyalty.”
Whitlock has not always had the luxury of calling the same place home for long periods of time. She has lived all over the United States thanks to growing up in a military family and later becoming a college softball coach, and now her life has come full circle as she is back where many of her foundations were established. Whitlock reached out to South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith, and as luck would have it, the volunteer assistant position became available when Kaela Jackson accepted a full time assistant position at Michigan State.
Whitlock’s path back to Columbia had taken her to a lot of places. She was the head coach at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, for four years, before spending the last three years as the head coach at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina. She started her coaching career as an assistant coach at USC Spartanburg (now USC Upstate) and later served as an assistant coach at Chattanooga and Mercer, with five years of high school coaching as well.
Despite her experiences, her path was not always clear. Her four-year career at South Carolina (1994-97) saw her establish several school records while twice earning NFCA All-American honors and helping the Gamecocks win the SEC regular season and tournament championships in 1997 and advance to the NCAA Women’s College World Series.
“It was a dream season,” Whitlock recalled. “I remember after my first year, we got to the NCAA regional but couldn’t get past it. That was frustrating, and I thought about going back home. I wanted to win big. I prayed about it, and the conviction I had was that if these are the things I wanted to do, then I need to stay and be a difference-maker. We got better every year, and it showed our senior year. It was a collective effort of everyone on the team.”
Whitlock met her husband, Brian, while staying with teammate Chanda Lee at her home in Georgia. There was an instant connection and the couple was engaged six months later. Brian found work and moved to Columbia. It wouldn’t be the last time that a South Carolina connection impacted her future.
“So here I am having this dream season and planning a wedding,” Whitlock said. “I also received an invitation for the U.S. National Team. So I got married a month after college, and then trained with the national team for three years. I played pro ball for one year after that.”
The couple had decided that if she didn’t make the U.S. national team for the 2000 Olympics, then they would start a family. Whitlock left her job at Chattanooga and moved to Atlanta where her first child, Aaron Thomas, was born.
I want to be an example for the ladies I coach. One day they might find themselves with a true challenge, and I would want them to know that they can face it, that they can do this.
“I struggled with that transition of no longer being an athlete at first.”
While her life had already changed in the transition from athlete to mother, a more dramatic and unforeseeable change was looming. Whitlock was pregnant with her second child (Brian) two years later.
“Nine days before I was to give birth, my husband passed unexpectedly,” Whitlock said. “He was 35 years old. He just collapsed at work with an enlarged heart. Here I am with a toddler and pregnant with my second child, and all of the sudden my world just changed. You find yourself just lost. He was my best friend and my soulmate. Everything we planned just changed. Nothing else matters except surviving, so you rely on everything you’ve known.”
That included her skills on the softball field, her faith and her former teammates and coaches.
“I remember Coach (Joyce) Compton came down for the funeral, along with several other people,” Whitlock said. “She didn’t always have to tell me much as a player. She could just give me a look of confidence that always told me ‘I could do this.’ I was walking out of the church, and she gave me that same look. I’m very thankful for that moment because you never know how you’re going to handle adversity. I do know that you can’t go through it unchanged.”
Whitlock had started her own business selling antiques and collectibles as well as giving private softball lessons, but five years later, she decided to get back into softball full time.
“Through prayer and faith, God reminded me that he gave me strength on the ball field,” Whitlock said. “I just had this confirmation to go back to the ball field. This is where I belong.”
Once again, a South Carolina connection made an impact on her life. She discovered a coaching position at Le Moyne College through her former teammate, Kim Pietro.
“One of the things that interested me was that it was a faith-based school,” Whitlock said. “So it offered me an opportunity to get back in the game, but maybe also get some healing. The idea of serving others was appealing and I realized I could make a living at this yet still be a quality mother to my children. My boys have always been highly involved in my career. They’d be at the hitting cages in their strollers or running around the ball field. The toughest part was trying to create a ‘wholeness’ because you know there is something missing. We had to create some normalcy, knowing that this is going to be our new norm.”
Whitlock admits that losing her husband softened her in some ways and made her more conscious of what others are going through in their personal lives. She would eventually like to become a head coach at the NCAA Division I level, but for now, she is committed to helping the Gamecocks reach their goals.
“In the role that I’m in now, I want to give the coaching staff and the team what’s needed to get to the next level and win a championship,” Whitlock said. “I don’t think small. I would like to be able to be a part of helping the team win a national championship.”
Her husband is still in her thoughts, but she and her two boys keep moving forward. Whitlock has faith that her latest connection to South Carolina will continue to have a great impact on her life.
“Life is good,” Whitlock said. “Life has been good for a while. It was just a little more challenging. I’ve never thrown a pity-party for myself. There were times when I was mad about it, but I want to be an example for the ladies I coach. One day they might find themselves with a true challenge, and I would want them to know that they can face it, that they ‘can do this.’ ”
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