Spring 2024 /The Value of the Liberal Arts/

A Woman Is Men’s Coach of the Year

First-year Coach Amber Williams, right, with Assistant Coach Emma DeLira, says, “I’m working with great people.”

First-year Coach Amber Williams, right, with Assistant Coach Emma DeLira, says, “I’m working with great people.”

Pomona-Pitzer Coach Amber Williams’ path to the 2023 Division III men’s cross country championship and national Coach of the Year honors began a decade ago in Indiana, at her alma mater, Ball State.

There, the former Division I student-athlete cut her teeth as a track and field coach after a gilded collegiate career. Williams spent four years at Ball State before successive stops at Division I programs Colgate, Cleveland State and Columbia.

Last June, Pomona-Pitzer hired her to coach men’s cross country and track and field.

“I’d been lucky enough to know about the program here through other coaching friends,” Williams says. “I’d heard nothing but good things and glowing reviews.

“You feel at times you never get a utopia,” she adds, “but here felt pretty doggone close.”

While not her first time taking over a men’s athletics program, Williams still wondered how a female head coach would be received at Pomona-Pitzer—even with Emma DeLira, an assistant coach and invaluable piece of the program, already on staff.

“You never know how a men’s team will react” to having a female coach, Williams says, “but they were so warm and so open to the opportunity. It speaks volumes to who they are as people. … When it comes to those guys, they knew at the end of the day, the mission was to try to get another championship.”

Introductions behind, Williams and the Sagehens set out on a bounce-back season.

“There’s a tradition of competitiveness and a winning culture here,” Williams says. “You feel that prestige when you come through the doors. After what happened last year, we hoped we could bring it back.”

Despite coming up short in 2022, Pomona-Pitzer returned five of seven athletes who competed in the national meet and began the campaign ranked highly in Division III. But injuries, illnesses and lackluster performances in the latter part of the year tanked the Sagehens’ ranking heading into the postseason.

With adversity, however, came perspective.

“Being the underdogs, you wonder how a team will take that, how it’ll react when something doesn’t go their way,” Williams says. “Some athletes feel the path has to be perfect, and if it isn’t, nationals is out of reach. These guys figured it out every week, every meet. You saw them believe the good races were coming and uplift each other, care about each other.”

As they had the year before, the Sagehens captured conference and regional championships on their way to nationals.

But typically, Derek Fearon ’24 says, teams ranked outside the top three heading into the title race have little chance to win. Pomona-Pitzer had fallen to No. 8.

“I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking we were going to win,” he says. “All I knew is we had to run the best race.”

They did, winning by the narrowest of margins.

Williams also made history, becoming the first female head coach to win a Division III men’s cross country championship.

“For a lot of the guys, there’s more ownership of this championship compared to 2021,” says Colin Kirkpatrick ’24.

“Two years ago, we didn’t really know what it would take to win. But this year, we knew exactly what it would take, how hard it would be and how unlikely it was.”

In the days following the team’s historic win, Fearon, Lucas Florsheim ’24, Kirkpatrick and Cameron Hatler ’25 earned All-America honors. For Fearon and Florsheim, the distinctions were the third of their careers.

Additionally, Williams was named national men’s cross country Coach of the Year for Division III—the first female and third Pomona-Pitzer coach to receive the honor.

While it is an individual coaching award, Williams is effusive in her praise of DeLira, a tireless leader.

“I’m working with great people, in a great space, in a great environment,” Williams says. “I hope we can continue to do great things for a long time.”