Archdeacon: No ‘lollygagging,’ Erin Whalen steps up for UD women

Some things are just meant to be.

Their family has deep ties to Ohio and an ongoing connection to the University of Dayton.

Joe Whalen grew up in Ashtabula and went to John Carroll University. His wife Jackie is from Akron.

“My brother Bernie went to UD when Jim Paxson and Johnny Davis were playing and they had the old cork court in the Arena,” Joe said Wednesday night. “I had a bunch of cousins who went here, too,

“We usually come up for one of the men’s basketball games every year and get together as a family,” “We have at least 10 to 15 people come in from northeast Ohio and Chicago and we come up from Charlotte. It’s something we look forward to each year.”

So when his and Jackie’s daughter Erin began making a name for herself as a high school basketball player – she was North Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year – UD tried to make another connection between the family and the school.

Shauna Green – now the Flyers women’s coach, but then an assistant on Jim Jabir’s staff – recruited her as did several Power 5 Conference schools.

Whalen chose Vanderbilt because she liked the coach – then Melanie Balcomb – the “beautiful” campus and the school’s high academic standing.

But Balcomb resigned right before she got there and the Commodores have struggled to win since. They were 14-16 and 7-24 in Whalen’s two seasons there, went 7-23 last year and are 13-13 now.

Whalen’s playing time and production declined some as a sophomore – after being named to the SEC All Freshman team — and her dad saw it affecting her.

“I could tell she wasn’t that happy,” said Joe, who spent two dozen years as a Secret Service agent and still serves as an agency investigator. “I told her, ‘This is your time, You’ve got to make it for yourself. You’ve got to enjoy it.’

“I kept throwing in Dayton because of all our family that went here and because I just love the atmosphere at the men’s games. It’s a great school and the first time she was recruited, everybody was awesome.

“I said, ‘Look wherever else you want, but at least go and see Dayton.’

“And when we came in for her visit, it was 9:30 on a Friday night. There were five cars lined up at the airport to pick us up. All the coaches were there and everybody made her feel welcome.”

Whalen said it was the UD players who especially swayed her:

“The girls really did it for me. They were committed to the program. It didn’t seem like they had any drama with it. Everybody was dedicated to putting the team first. I could just tell they were just hungry for wins.”

And that’s one of the main reasons she said she left Vanderbilt:

“I’m a very competitive person. I wanted to win. I didn’t want to waste four years just lollygagging around. I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to win a championship and make it to the NCAA Tournament. And I felt Dayton was able to provide me with that.”

She was right.

The Flyers have made the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past 10 seasons and appeared in the WNIT the other two.

With Wednesday night’s come-from-behind, 50-44 victory over George Washington at UD Arena, the Flyers won at least a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season championship and that prompted a net cutting ceremony afterward.

UD is now 20-7 and has won 15 straight games. Its last loss was Dec. 20.

A 6-foot-1 redshirt junior, Whalen is the team’s leading scorer (13.2 points per game) and even though she spent extra time on the bench Wednesday because of foul trouble, she lifted the Flyers down the stretch and scored a game-high 15 points.

Although she’ll graduate in the spring, she’s already taking classes toward her masters degree, which she hopes to complete while playing for the Flyers next season.

And her prominent role with the Flyers now has changed the format for the Whalen’s annual gathering here each year.

Two weekends ago the family came to Dayton to watch the men’s team edge St Louis on Saturday night and then returned to UD Arena the next day to watch the the women defeat Rhode Island.

“It used to be everyone came in for the reunion just to see the men,,” Whalen smiled. “Now they come for the women’s game, too.

“So I guess I’ve come full circle.”

A basketball community

Whalen said she first learned to shoot at a hoop set up on the driveway of the family home in Charlotte:

“We had the foul line and the three-point line measured off. I had lots of good coaches over the years, but I won’t forget my parents out there all summer, rebounding for me in that Carolina heat.”

“So who most influenced your daughter’s shooting prowess?” Joe was asked.

“When she’s making them, I say me,” he laughed. “The other times I say it’s her mom.

“Truthfully, though, she got involved in AAU and had some good coaches.”

After shooting 55.5 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the line at Providence Day School in Charlotte, she made a splash as a Vanderbilt freshman, starting 10 games and scoring 24 against Ole Miss, 20 versus Arkansas and averaging 9.1 points per game for the season.

Coming off the bench as a sophomore, she did have a 25-point game against No. 10 South Carolina and she made five three-pointers against Alabama,

Once at UD she sat out last season to meet NCAA transfer rules. Even so, she began to feel part of something special she said:

“You’ve got a crowd cheering for you at the games. You go into Kroger’s and people recognize you. This is a basketball community and I love it.”

And no one has embraced her any more than John Varmuza, a 39-year-old special needs fan of the Flyers who adopts a favorite player every year.

“Every season he watches the players closely and it takes him three or four games to pick his very favorite player,” said Ruth Frantz, his aide from the department of developmental disabilities and his sidekick at games. “A few years back his favorite was Ally Malott and the last couple of years it was Lauren Cannatelli. Now it’s Erin.

“A friend of mine does silk screening and she makes a shirt for him each season with the player’s picture on it and some designation that he’s their No. 1 fan.”

After Wednesday’s victory, Varmuza was invited onto the court where he talked to Whalen and then joined the team for a photo.

‘I just had to step up’

John’s post-game celebration – like the net-cutting ceremony that preceded it – was in jeopardy during the third quarter Wednesday.

The Flyers – with Whalen scoring seven of the team’s first 10 points – held a 17-3 lead at the end of the first quarter on the 11-14 Colonials.

But with 3:36 left in the quarter Whalen had picked up her second foul and went to the bench for the rest of the half. Finding no one else to shoot over GW’s zone defense, the Flyers began to see their advantage erode.

And then UD collapsed completely in the third quarter and was outscored, 22-8.

With her team trailing by five, going into the final stanza, Green said she told her players “ we’re fine… just calm down and snap out it.”

Whalen said she knew what she had to do:

“The team looks at me as a scorer. I just had to step up.”

With UD trailing 45-40 with under five minutes left, she scored six straight points. She buried a three from deep on the baseline and 50 seconds later hit another three to lift the Flyers into the lead.

She’d score again down the stretch and UD point guard Shakeela Fowler – who also had hit a three – sealed the game with four straight free throws in the final 70 seconds.

Afterward, Green talked about the way Whalen had stepped up.

“She’s the biggest competitor you’re ever gonna see out there. She does everything for us.

“That three in the corner, when she hit that, I was like, ‘OK, we’re good!”’

And they were.

Some things are just meant to be.

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