It is tough to keep up with Karli Whitaker.
To put it simply, the multi-sport student-athlete at LaGrange College is fast.
Whitaker's speed comes in multiple forms. The sophomore's superb conditioning allows her to excel in long-distance, cross country events. At the same time, the young woman's lightning speed in short sprints is impressive, which makes her a base-stealing threat on the softball diamond.
During the 2019 cross country season, Whitaker finished in the Panthers' third slot on three occasions. The Winder native and Winder-Barrow High School alum ranked third on the softball team in stolen bases (9) during her rookie campaign.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut Whitaker's 2020 softball season short, but the dedicated college student is focused on coming back stronger than ever in both sports during the 2020-21 season.
"When I came to LaGrange, I had no idea that I was going to run cross country," said Whitaker. "I had never really run more than a mile. Every race, my time gets better. For cross country, my goal is always to be better than I was during the last race. This coming season in softball, I want to improve my hitting. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, all I have been doing is running and hitting; hopefully that will benefit me this upcoming season for both sports."
Whitaker finished with four runs and two stolen bases in seven games off the bench for the Panthers in 2020.
When the lights were the brightest at the 2019 USA South Cross Country Championship, she clocked a career-best time of 30:08.43 on the 6-kilometer course in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. During the Foothills Invitational on Oct. 5, Whitaker set a personal-best time of 26:47.00 in the 5-kilometer event.
Whitaker took some time to speak about what she has learned from the pandemic, while talking about the joys and challenges of being a two-sport athlete.
Q: Could you talk about what your two head coaches in Jasen Jonus and Jennifer Claybrook have taught you?
A: Both coaches mean so much to me. The good thing about attending such a small school is we can form real relationships with our coaches. I know both coaches have my best interest at heart in sports and outside of sports. As much as they care about their players on the field, they care more about their players as individuals. One thing that I have learned the most from them is the importance of performing to the best of my ability on and off the field.
Q: What makes being a two-sport athlete fun and difficult?
A: There are more joys than there are challenges when it comes to playing two sports. The only challenging thing is when the two collide. During the fall softball season, for about two weeks, I was running five miles a day for cross country. Then, I would go to class and practice for three hours. The joys of both are all the people I have met and all the places I have been with them.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic created a stronger bond among LaGrange student-athletes?
A: During the pandemic, the softball team has communicated in our group chat more than we ever have. The cross country team has always been close, so we talk regularly. Coming back from this pandemic will create closer bonds because the athletes have missed their friends. We all miss our sport, which will get us up on our feet as soon as we are able to. You never truly realize how much you love something until you do not have it anymore. Any athlete will agree with me, they did not know how much they loved their sport until now.
Q: What have you personally learned from the crisis?
A: The pandemic has made me value sports more. I was quick to dread going to practice and running 5 miles or hitting in cages for hours. Now, I crave running, hitting and the long practices. It is safe to say that we all take sports for granted, but since it got taken from us so quickly, we will all value our time a little more now. Four years sounds like a long time to continue playing at the beginning of college, but as I come up on my junior year, I realize it is not that much time at all.
Q: What makes being a Panther unique?
A: The bond between the coaches and the players is unique. When I talk to my friends playing at other colleges, their coaches do not check up on them or communicate outside of softball. At the beginning of the season, Jonus and his wife, Dr. Hunter Connell Jonus, had the cross-country team over for dinner and we all talked and enjoyed each other's company. The softball team met at the home of Rev. Dr. Adam Roberts, who is LaGrange's chaplain and director of spiritual life and church relations, for dinner. I think it is great that players can go to their coaches' homes and meet their families and create bonds with them. You do not get that anywhere else.
Q: What made you decide to enroll at LaGrange?
A: I was late deciding where I wanted to go. When I came to visit LaGrange late in my senior year, I fell in love with the college. The campus was small, but it was beautiful. The students all seemed to be close and everyone knew everyone. When I met Claybrook and former assistant softball coach Savannah Sloan, I knew I wanted to come to LaGrange. They were both so positive about everything and talked highly about the players.
Q: What are you studying and what are your career aspirations?
A: I am majoring in early childhood education. I plan on becoming a physical education teacher and I also want to coach high school softball. I have always been around great coaches, but since coming to LaGrange, Claybrook and Jonus have made it obvious how important it is to have a strong coach, not just in sports. I would love to be able to share what they have taught me with other players.
Trevor Wenners is the assistant sports information director for LaGrange College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.