Oh, the places you have gone
Hard work, dedication mark career
By Jessica Blomquist
Retired high school teacher and cross county coach, Mike Naples, keeps a folder packed with awards banquet programs, photographs, meet statistics, newspaper clippings, and recommendation letters. The folder, labeled “Whitney/Queens,” commemorates Rutledge-born Whitney Dennis’s track and cross country career and more importantly, her college education. The most recent addition to the folder is a large program for commencement convocation of Queens University of Charlotte, marking Dennis’s May 3 graduation from the college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Another item included in the folder is a copy of a list containing advice that Naples gave to Dennis at the start of her freshman year in college. It says, “The eyes of Rutledge, Madison, and all of Morgan County are on you. Make people proud of you, and inspire others to follow in your footsteps.”
Naples has closely followed and encouraged Dennis’s athletics and education since meeting her in the fall of 2000. At the second practice for cross country, Dennis, a freshman who had only been running for a year, showed great potential.
“I said to her, ‘Young lady, you have some potential in this sport,’” said Naples of their first meeting.
During her four years at Morgan County High School, Dennis was a three-time region champion in cross country and a four-time region champion in the 800 meter track and field event. In 2004, as a senior, she became state champion in the 2A division in the 800 meter.
Towards the end of high school, she received a brochure from Queens University, and while at the National Footlocker Meet in November of 2003, she toured the campus with her mother and Naples.
Dennis liked the school’s location in the Meyer Parks neighborhood and the small size of the student body. The college also offered her an almost full-ride scholarship to cover room and board and tuition, which can run from $25,000 to $29,000 a semester.
“The coaches saw her run at the Footlocker Meet. They wanted her. They didn’t want to lose her,” said Naples.
She started on the Queen’s University’s cross country team as the No. 3 female on the team.
Since going to college, Dennis has completed a well-rounded liberal education, said Naples.
Naples credits Dennis’s determination and perseverance learned from participating in such a disciplined sport for helping her succeed in completing a college degree.
“I think Whitney is very determined,” he said. “She wanted to become good and that carried over to her schoolwork.”
She also took advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad to Ireland and Italy and was exposed to students from other places.
“They took a young girl, and made her a young woman,” said Naples.
She ran in college, commonly placing high in the race results, but it was at the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Cross Country Championship at Wingate University that she really proved herself.
“That was the highlight of her career,” said Naples.
Dennis competed in the championship in November of 2007, where she placed 10th of 115 women with a time of 24:50 in the 6K (3.72 miles).
And all the time, Naples was just a phone call away, always supportive and encouraging.
“After high school, most people cut those ties,” said Dennis. “He was my first coach. I could call him and talk to him about anything. He always knew what to say at the right moment.”
“I think it’s because of that immediate relationship we had,” said Naples, on why he has been such a big part of Dennis’s life. “I felt compelled to prove she had it.”
He also convinced her that through her athletics, she had what it took to make the greatest long-distance goal, a four-year degree.
“This is someone who never thought she would be college material,” he said.
The pair have become close, almost like family, since that first cross country practice in high school.
“I look at him as my second father,” said Dennis.
Naples and his wife, who have no children of their own, second that. “We joke sometimes and say we’re going to see our daughter run,” he said.
“He and Mrs. Naples will always be a part of my life, no matter where I go,” said Dennis.
Now with a degree from college, Dennis has many options. She is currently waiting for the results of applying for a position as an Equal Employment Opportunities Specialist at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, a branch of the Department of Labor that deals with corporate discrimination. This follows an internship that Dennis completed during her senior year with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
She is also considering returning to graduate school to complete a master’s degree in either psychology or social work.
“I’m proud,” said Dennis. “I never dreamed of graduating from college. And now that I’ve graduated, I know there are a lot of options out there.”
Always a supportive influence in her life, Naples agrees, “She’s young. She’s got that degree and she can do whatever she wants.”