If you’re a Blue Hawk, chances are you know the Wittkopps. Shayne coaches track and field and cross country at DSU and teaches exercise science. His wife, Ann, is an athletic trainer and also teaches exercise science and health education. Recently, Ann was named the interim dean of the school of professional studies.
The Wittkopps are from eastern Montana, but for this small-town couple, Dickinson is home. Both are DSU alums. After graduating, they left Dickinson for a few years, moving to Long Island, New York, then Washington, before coming back to Dickinson.
“It’s a safe community where our kids can just be kids, which is the experience we had,” Shayne said. “We went to a small school in eastern Montana, but Dickinson has all the things that we didn’t have growing up, being from a really rural town, but it also allows our kids to do things like if they want to build a fort, they can do that; if they want to ride their bike to their friend’s house, they can do that.”
One of the driving factors in their return was their experience at DSU.
“A lot of really positive things happened to us at the university, and it felt like a really great fit for us. The institution just feels like home,” Shayne said.
Shayne wanted to help kids have the kind of experience he did at DSU. A lot of DSU students are from similar backgrounds, so Shayne uses his experiences when recruiting potential student-athletes.
“I genuinely had a really good experience, so when I tell kids about that, they can see themselves in me, and they want to have that type of an experience,” he said. “We get a lot of kids from rural areas in North Dakota and Montana, and it’s a big enough school that they’re going to have a different experience than they had in high school, but it’s also small enough that they’re not going to be overwhelmed and they feel comforted that they’re going to know who I am and I’m going to take time to check in on them on a daily basis.”
In addition to their family, which consists of Ann, Shayne and their two boys, the Wittkopps have created their own Blue Hawk family by building relationships with their students and athletes.
It starts with getting to know them.
“In the classroom, I think one of the most important things to do is learn the name of your students and learn personal things about them so that they feel that they have a connection to you,” Ann said. “I used to do that in my 7th-12th science classes as well, so each student felt like they had a unique relationship with me.”
In athletics, Shayne likes to start the season with a team trip of some sort.
“By the time they get back, everybody’s got a best friend, and they will eat lunch together every day for just about the rest of the year based off a trip. They establish a relationship with each other and with me,” he said.
For Shayne, trips like these, while they can be exhausting - they just finished a 10-hour bus ride - they’re some of his best memories.
“I tell kids all the time, don’t take these things for granted,” he said. “These are some of the things I miss the most about being a student-athlete - just being around my friends. Those bus trips can be such a pain in the butt, but they are such a blessing because you do get to know people. Lifelong friendships develop there.”
When you know your students and athletes, you can better support them when they need it.
“I know of two kids right now that are going through deaths in their family, so I’ll check in with them and see how they’re doing. Somebody’s always going through something, but you won’t know unless you put yourself out there a little bit and get to know these kids - find out things that aren’t just the standard stuff; it’s not just about the stopwatch or what place you get or how many points you score; they’re people, and I’m going to get to know them. All those things matter. If you take care of the person, their performance takes care of itself.”
This applies to the classroom, as well.
“That helps hold students accountable, and it helps them feel a little bit more motivated to want to do well for you because they have that relationship. They don’t want to let you down; they want to work hard. They know you’re expecting them to work hard,” Ann said.
When you know your students, you can identify any issue they’re facing early on before it becomes a problem.
“We’ve been doing this stuff long enough now that we can see before the wheels fall off … so we can try and help them correct their direction before things start to unravel for them as a student,” Ann said. “Thankfully, in the programs that we teach in, we see a lot of those students every day, as students and as student-athletes, so it’s pretty easy to tell whether this is a normal thing for them or not, and we know their personalities well enough to know if someone’s usually really talkative and today they’re just kind of sitting there, there must be something going on.”
Shayne said some of the kids on the team are very attached to Ann. One such student-athlete, whom Ann describes as a “super sweet girl,” wrote an essay about her.
“She had an assignment that she needed to write an essay about someone who had been really influential in their lives, and she decided to write it about me, and I almost cried,” Ann said. “That meant a lot, that she felt that the connection was the same as I felt it was, that I had been able to help her out so much.”
Ann said she tries to be a positive female role model for women like her.
“A lot of it centers around being assertive and showing men that women can be assertive and want things and work for things and take what they deserve. They can earn these things, and they have a right to be able to earn these things,” she said.
Under the supportive environment the couple have created, their student-athletes are flourishing.
In six seasons, Shayne has led the Blue Hawks to 15 conference titles in the North Star Athletic Conference, and they hold 26 North Star Conference records, 22 most valuable athletes, and 132 individual conference champions. They’ve broken 21 DSU records and had 15 NAIA All-American performances.
Their students aren’t just good athletes, they’re also good people, and at the end of the day, teaching and coaching, Shayne said, is about “developing young people.”
When the men’s team won the conference meet for the first time in five years, the women’s team was happy and supportive of the men’s team.
“The most rewarding thing for me was not that my status was changed by a win, it was that those girls were so selflessly happy for those guys. It was awesome. I felt so proud of the girls,” Shayne said.
Creating this type of supportive environment, one in which students and athletes both thrive, is much easier at DSU than at other places the Wittkopps have worked.
“In Washington state where I would teach classes, it was nothing for me to have 60 kids in a class, and I think I’ve got 22 in my biggest class this year (at DSU),” Shayne said.
Shayne doesn’t want student-athletes to think of choosing a smaller university as closing any doors.
“You can go and do whatever it is that you want, but you can always come back,” he said.
Just like the Wittkopps did.
Written by Kayla Henson, Dickinson State University writer