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Growing up around diversity helps Spartan soccer player on and off the field

June 07, 2019
Keith Witherell competes in soccer game.

Most people need to get out in the community or beyond to experience diversity. Keith Witherell just has to sit down for dinner with his family.

The York College of Pennsylvania junior, majoring in Sport Management with a minor in Entrepreneurship, was adopted as a toddler and grew up in a home with four other adopted brothers and sisters.

Aged 7 to 25, they are Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and, like Keith, African-American. He also had three Hispanic foster siblings. His adoptive parents are Caucasian.

“Because of the way I grew up, it helped me accept my teammates, those who look like me or those who don’t,” says Keith, a forward on the York College men’s soccer team with recent Capital Athletic Conference Second Team All-Conference honors. “I don’t see color or race. I see the person.”

In need of a change

Keith transferred to York College after a freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University marked by disagreements with his soccer coach. He knew he had to move on.

In high school in Arlington, Virginia, he had been recruited to play at the U.S. Naval Academy by then-coach Dave Brandt, who had won six NCAA Division III national championships. Though Keith ended up choosing a different school, he decided to call Brandt to ask where he might go after VCU.

“I trusted him,” Keith says.

Brandt had been a mentor of York College men’s soccer coach Evan Scheffey. Within an hour of talking with Brandt, Keith received a call from Coach Scheffey.

Keith readied the paperwork needed for transferring from a Division I to a Division III school. He took an online class that York College required.

He and his mother visited the College and discussed academics and soccer with Coach Scheffey. Coming from a big university in Richmond, Virginia, Keith was taken with the smaller size of York College and the York community.

After enrolling, he found the support he sought in the classroom and on the soccer field.

“Classes are smaller at York College, and that’s better for me academically because I do better with a little more attention,” he says. “You know your professor. He looks you in the face and recognizes you by name. The same with the coaches. They’re willing to help. They want you to succeed.”

Finding a good fit

Keith, who has played soccer in Germany, Spain, and France, knew that fitting in on the team would be a challenge after playing at a larger school.

“Once you get to know your teammates at the D-III level, you become family,” Keith says. “In Division I, there’s always a top-dog player who wants to stand out. In D-III, players stand out, but at the end of the day you’re all one team.”

Keith’s Sport Management studies include a practicum in which students work in support roles at athletic events as well as a semester-long project in their senior year.

“Everything is hands-on work experience at York College,” he says.

Recently, he traveled to Philadelphia for a symposium on minorities in the sports workplace. The event helped him connect with and learn from people in the field.

“For me, I like experiences. Meeting other people, networking, that’s the best thing I can do — meeting other people who look like me and want to do the same things as me,” he says. 

Making a difference

Keith and his teammates coach youth soccer around York.

“We want to help youth realize that there are kids like me, who look like me, have been through the same thing,” he says. “I love coaching.”

Working with kids has helped him see how his fellow students might become even more engaged with the community. There’s an elementary school a few blocks from the College, he notes.

“It’s a five-minute walk. Why can’t we do out-of-school programs for the kids? It could be homework, things like that,” he points out.

That desire has brought a career goal into focus, in addition to his aim to play professional soccer.

“With my major, I would love to start something where I can help kids with sports, homework,” he says. “I want to start my own program to engage these kids. I want them to realize that there’s someone who looks like them that is getting a degree, played sports in college.”