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Wagstaff courts success at Whitworth

They call it The Bubble, a low-profile dome that has raised the stature of tennis at Whitworth University.

“It’s really rocked our world,” said women’s coach Jo Wagstaff, who recently celebrated her 300th career dual-match victory in a career that first defied and later defined the landscape of women’s sports in the Inland Northwest.

Growing up in north Spokane, Wagstaff learned the game of tennis from her older sister while “hitting balls off the wall” at Salk Middle School and by watching others play.

Through hard work, she made the varsity at Shadle Park – one of three girls’ sports offered at the time – and figured she’d reached legitimate jock status. Actually, she had – Title IX was already the law of the land – but she was living in the gender-biased bubble of the Inland Northwest.

One afternoon, recalls Wagstaff, “a teammate and I heard from the cheerleaders that they were serving refreshments in the gym for the school’s athletes.

Wagstaff and her teammates were about to partake, then were told, “Wait, that’s for the jocks.”

“I said, ‘Wait, we’re jocks too.’ ”

Not the right kind of jock, she was told – and not by the administration, but by the female cheer squad.

“It wasn’t just the the good old boys – it was everyone,” Wagstaff said.

After one year at Spokane Community College, where she dated her future husband, Bill, a tennis player at Ferris, she transferred to Washington State.

She went on to play No. 1 singles at WSU, where the women’s players had to bring their own tennis dresses from home and share their warm-ups with the swimming and volleyball teams.

By then, Title IX was five years old, but change came slowly in the Inland Northwest.

A physical education major, Wagstaff was placed in remedial classes at WSU, because unlike students from California and other places, she didn’t know the rules of games like volleyball and basketball.

In the meantime, she maintained a long-distance relationship with Bill, who played at Oregon.

“The gals on my team can’t believe that – how did we stay together” before the age of cell phones,” said Wagstaff, who married Bill and followed him back to Spokane, where he has coached boys tennis at Mead High School.

Wagstaff worked at odd jobs, including assisting Bill and working as a junior varsity coach at Ferris. She wanted to be a nurse, but was pregnant with the first of three children. Morning sickness drove her to quit, but she eventually returned to school and finished up.

Before multitasking was a word, Wagstaff defined it: nursing school, raising children and, in the spring of 1985, the first hint of a permanent job, though she didn’t know it yet.

She was hired at Whitworth in February 1985 to coach a women’s tennis season that lasted eight weeks.

Then came her big opportunity, though it came through necessity: athletic director Jim Ferguson hired her to be his assistant. Two weeks later he departed – for good, as it turned out – to another department at the university.

Suddenly, Wagstaff was the interim athletic director, in charge of the entire department, dealing with everything from football to the media. And since the school was without a president at the time, she was on her own, mostly “putting out fires.”

In 1993 she became a part-time member of the faculty and assistant athletic director under Kevin Bryant, “and I never went back to nursing.”

Finally, in the fall of 2000, she reached her current status of full-time faculty member, with 50 percent of her time devoted to teaching and coaching, and the other half to administration, including overseeing the budget for the entire department.

In that role Wagstaff has helped oversee the growth of women’s sports, including soccer, then fastpitch softball.

“Whitworth has been so wonderful that way,” Wagstaff said. The school “has worked hard to make the facilities the same and the practice times the same, and I haven’t had to be militant about it.”

As different as they are, Wagstaff said she likes both jobs. “I love mentoring coaches and helping them (with budgets),” she said. “When (baseball coach) Dan Ramsey came, he had never even owned a credit card.”

But she’s passionate about tennis, and for years, she has played singles and doubles (with Bill) in the Pacific Northwest, being ranked as high as first in the region.

She can see The Bubble from her office. On a recent rainy morning she grabbed her racquet walked past the rain-soaked outdoor courts and prepared to teach a beginner’s class.

As a coach, Wagstaff was already a winner before the construction in 2007 of the Cutter Courts at the Scotford Tennis Center, as the facility is officially known. The dean of Whitworth coaches, she recently won her 300th match against just over 200 losses, but until five years ago, the Pirates won conference titles “only here and there”.

“But we’ve been really consistent the last five years,” with two second-place finishes and the last three championships,” said Wagstaff, who also puts winning behind the relationships forged on the court.

“I tell my freshmen, one day you will be in each others’ weddings, so you might as well start talking to each other right now.”