By Geoff Langham
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
After a decorated collegiate tennis career, most athletes would graduate and, barring a professional career, move on to joining the workforce or even get into coaching. However, Oklahoma’s Whitney Ritchie isn’t like most athletes.
Ritchie was named All-Big 12 in singles and doubles for three consecutive years from 2012-14 and was named Big 12 Player of the Week three times. Coming off of a 2014 campaign that included being named the ITA Senior Player of the Year, Ritchie has taken her energy and competitive spirit to the hardwood for her final season of athletic eligibility.
Despite her athletic prowess, Ritchie claims that it hasn’t been an easy transition.
“It’s division one basketball,” said Ritchie, now a member of the OU women’s basketball team. “Everything is, even from high school basketball, just so many levels higher and more intense. You’re just going a million miles an hour and I was thrown into it.”
While practice, the drills, and anything basketball related haven’t come quite as easily, Ritchie has been able to carry over her leadership abilities in order to make an impact on the team.
“Coming off of a four-year tennis career I was kind of a leader both on and off the court,” said Ritchie. “I can’t do nearly as much on the basketball court as I could the tennis court, so my role has changed into more of a vocal leader and an energy provider on the sideline.”
The leadership skills she gained while playing tennis have certainly transitioned well and are rubbing off on her younger teammates, particularly freshman point guard Gabbi Ortiz. It is leadership from older players on the team such as Ritchie that is so vital to the development of younger players.
“She is the perfect teammate,” said Ortiz. “She is someone that anybody would want on the team and you can always look to her to have positive energy and get the team going.”
Ritchie also has experience with coming back after a break from basketball. Early in high school, she made the decision to pursue a tennis scholarship and gave up basketball. After committing to the tennis program at Oklahoma during her junior year, she decided to join the basketball team at Bishop McGuiness High School in Oklahoma City for her senior year.
“I knew at the time I was just so small,” said Ritchie. “My dad was my tennis coach and everything just kind of played out.”
Ritchie’s hard work and sacrifice all came to fruition in the later hours of Nov. 21 at the Lloyd Noble Center. With a comfortable lead over Bradley, Sooner head coach Sherri Coale put Ritchie into the game with about six minutes to go.
She responded by scoring eight straight points, including two three-pointers, while also recording a rebound, an assist, and a steal. It was, perhaps, the most animated the Sooner bench has been all season.
“We were all just so excited for her to get in there and get her first basket as a collegiate basketball player,” said Ortiz. “ That was pretty awesome and she got into it. It was just a great thing for the team.”
Ritchie certainly appreciated the love shown by her teammates and was astounded by the sequence of events.
“It was like 45 or 50 seconds of thinking that I don’t know what’s happening but this is great,” said Ritchie. “It was just so surreal. The thing is, when I’m in there they want to get me the ball and they want me to score and it’s just so cool to have that and feel that love from them.”
The head tennis coach at Oklahoma, David Mullins, isn’t surprised at all by the impact she has made in such a short time with the women’s basketball team.
“Tennis is an individual sport but Whitney had the rare ability to always put her team first and play her best tennis when her team needed her most,” said Mullins. “She is the ultimate team player and I am not at all surprised that she is impacting the basketball squad in such a positive manner.”
Mullins also credits her mental toughness and insight as characteristics that have contributed to her impact.
“She can look at issues and relationships within her team from a more mature perspective and enjoy her experience in a very unique way,” said Mullins. “You have to be extremely mentally tough to play tennis at the level she did, so I don’t believe anything she will face on the basketball court will phase her much.”
One thing is for sure. Whether Ritchie checks in to the game or not, her presence will be felt.