For a guy who has proven to be a winner at every other level, Brian Kitamura didn’t enjoy a lick of team success during his four seasons as a baseball player at Whitman College.
In fact, the 2006 Mercer Island High School graduate endured some of Whitman’s darkest moments during his playing career in a Missionaries uniform.
Whitman never won more than four Northwest Conference games in any of Kitamura’s four seasons patrolling center field for the Missionaries.
And Whitman’s overall record during those four campaigns was a distressing 18-133.
All of which makes Whitman’s startling run to the NCAA Division III playoffs this spring in Kitamura’s fourth season as head coach all the more impressive.
But not necessarily surprising.
As a high-school senior Kitamura led the Islanders to their first playoff berth in seven years.
And as a collegian he was charged with just four defensive errors in four seasons, recorded a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage as a sophomore and batted .285 and led the team in walks and runs scored as a junior.
Kitamura was head coach of the Walla Walla Bears summer baseball team for four seasons (2011-14) and compiled a gaudy 119-47-3 record with numerous tournament championships.
And with Kitamura as an assistant coach for five seasons, the last two as the recruiting coordinator, Whitman began its long climb from mediocrity.
Whitman won 16 games in 2013, the school’s biggest win total in 30 years, and a 20-win season in 2014 was the program’s best since 1982.
And as the head coach, Kitamura’s teams have clamored up the NWC ladder from eighth place in 2016 to third this year, culminated by the conference tournament championship in Spokane that vaulted the Blues into the NCAA regionals for the first time in school history.
“It has been a great ride, and I absolutely love being at Whitman College,” Kitamura said. “It’s my alma mater, it’s my wife’s alma mater, and being a part of this community and having the opportunity to lead this program is really special.”
However, there’s nothing magical about turning a losing program into a winner, Kitamura insisted. It’s all about hard work.
“We have been days upon days on the road, hours upon hours building relationships with recruits and baseball programs,” Kitamura said. “And I am very thankful to our coaching staff for that.
“We’ve invested an immense amount of time and miles into a recruiting approach that matches what Whitman College is looking for in any student. These guys are coming here to play baseball, which is awesome, but also to get one of the best educations anywhere in the country.”
And it takes more than talent to reach a goal, Kitamura said. He learned that during his playing days at Whitman.
“We’ve always had talented players here at Whitman,” he said. “What separates this group is their ability to execute and how together they are and how much of a team game they play
“The talent with this group is there. But the thing that defines us is our workmanship and willingness to work together.”
Those four summers coaching the Bears proved to be crucial in preparing Kitamura for his baseball ascent to the Whitman College head coaching position.
“Coaching the Bears was a great experience, and I absolutely loved it,” he said. “That opportunity helped me to grow as a coach and understand who I am as a coach and what I want to prioritize..”
With a degree in psychology, Kitamura is also finding his college education beneficial as a coach.
“In all honesty it does help, and I am extremely thankful for that background,” he said. “It really helps in terms of coaching student-athletes.
“One of the things you realize is that while baseball is a very large part and a big reason why they came to Whitman, at times it is a very small part of what they are doing on a day-to-day basis. Some of my best conversations with my guys, we don’t talk baseball, we just connect on a one-on-one level, and having a background is psychology has helped me as a coach.”
Success on the field often leads to opportunities to move up the coaching ladder. Kitamura is aware of that as well, but at 30 years of age he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry.
“I will be honest, I love being here at Whitman,” he said. “We are both Whitman College grads, we have a 12-month-old daughter who is just starting to walk, and we feel extremely grateful for all the support.
“If there are opportunities in the future, that is a family decision. If they arise, it has to be what is best for me and my family.
“But being here at Whitman, I wouldn’t trade it for the world right now.”