David Diffenderfer wakes up at 4 a.m. to go to work at Costco. When he’s done there, he goes to Flathead Valley Community College to save its athletic program.
While FVCC isn’t exactly an athletic juggernaut, it does, contrary to what some people think, have an intercollegiate athletic program. Diffenderfer, the college’s new athletic director, has made it his mission to give the program relevancy or, at the very least, schedule a few games.
“A lot of students don’t even realize they have sports on campus,” Diffenderfer said.
FVCC has four intercollegiate sports and an array of intramurals. The intercollegiate are men’s and women’s cross-country and men’s and women’s soccer, which means Diffenderfer can give out scholarships for those sports. Intramurals range from Frisbee golf to basketball to flag football. If a student comes to Diffenderfer with an intramural idea, he’ll try to make it work.
“What do you want to play?” Diffenderfer tells students. “It doesn’t have to be on this list.”
Diffenderfer, also the women’s soccer coach, has already made strides in developing the athletic program in his first couple weeks at the helm. The women’s soccer team played four games at the Whitefish Summer Games earlier this month. Before this year, it hadn’t played a single game in at least three or four years due to a shortage of players, except for a few times when the team borrowed players from the opponents.
“We played well,” Diffenderfer said. “It kind of got their juices flowing. (The players) are happy there’s something going on.
“Now they’re always asking, ‘Are there any more games scheduled?’”
Diffenderfer is working hard to promote the athletic program off the field too. He had FVCC Eagles shirts and memorabilia made. The school hasn’t had that before, as far as he knows. He also helps coach the Whitefish and Bigfork high school teams as both a community service and to let those players know that if they stay in the valley after high school they can still play soccer at FVCC.
“That helps get the word out,” he said.
If people know about FVCC’s athletic program and are encouraged to participate, many will, Diffenderfer believes. He tells students that anyone can play, regardless of experience. On both the men’s and women’s teams, some players have never played soccer in their lives.
Zak Clarke, who has been the men’s coach for four years, said he is impressed with Diffenderfer’s efforts. Clarke praised the previous athletic director, Mike McLean, who helped give the cross-country teams legitimacy. But Diffenderfer, last year’s women’s coach too, brings a much-needed focus on soccer, Clarke said.
While Clarke has been lucky and had enough players to play a full schedule all four years, the women’s team usually gets well under the necessary 11. This year, it has 16 on the roster.
Diffenderfer played soccer semi-professionally and professionally, traveling throughout Europe in the late 1990s and playing against some of the world’s top competition. Then he coached at Missouri Valley College. He studied physical education at Chico State and then got his master’s degree in education with the goal in mind of someday being an athletic director.
Brie Sellwood, one of the women’s players on full scholarship, said Diffenderfer’s ability to coach a team with players that range from lifelong soccer zealots to first-time athletes is one of his foremost strengths. Not to mention, he just knows how to coach girls, no matter what their ability is.
“He can work with girls and understand them,” Sellwood said. “You can’t talk to girls the same as guys. You just can’t. He has a wide range of what he can do.”
Diffenderfer, at 35 years old with three kids, likes to get out and play with the girls, though he admits age and injuries slow him. He jokes with the girls and instructs them. He patiently works with inexperienced players, demonstrating and explaining anything they don’t understand.
“He makes it fun,” Sellwood said.
Making it fun is necessary, especially for girls who have never played before.
“You keep it fun,” Diffenderfer said. “You have to. Have a laugh just so you’re enjoying yourself.”
Sellwood, a sophomore who played at Whitefish High School, said she has heard that the previous women’s coach would schedule a full season of games, then cancel all of them or borrow players from the opponents.
“It was a broken program,” Sellwood said.
The team’s consistent unreliability, Diffenderfer said, angered a lot of opposing coaches and made them skeptical about scheduling games with FVCC. For that reason, Diffenderfer works on a week-to-week basis instead of scheduling games at the beginning of the year. The result is that the team never knows if it will play.
“That’s hard for the girls to understand,” Diffenderfer said.
Diffenderfer has already called a lengthy list of potential in-state and out-of-state opponents for this season. He would love if he could get an opponent to travel to Kalispell, but that’s difficult because FVCC doesn’t have its own athletic facilities. Stebbins Field, where the Eagles practice, is no slouch of a field, though.
“I’ll offer to pay for (the other team’s) hotel or dinner just to get them here,” he said. “I would throw that bone out there. I would offer anything I can.”
Diffenderfer hopes the school will eventually have its own facilities, but the first step is proving the program can consistently schedule enough games to warrant such a project. Jane Karas, FVCC president, spoke highly of Diffenderfer’s efforts and said athletic facilities are inked into the college’s master plan.
Diffenderfer is optimistic.
“Everybody likes something new,” he said. “It’s fresh, new and exciting, whether you’re into sports or not.”
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