Winning Westendorp: Dowagiac grad coaches Ferris State women’s hoops to D2 Final Four

Published 2:31 pm Friday, April 5, 2024

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BIG RAPIDS — It was a March Madness to remember for Kurt Westendorp.

The Dowagiac Union High School grad and current Ferris State women’s basketball coach is still processing his team’s historic run to the NCAA Division II Final Four. The Bulldogs bowed out in a 68-52 loss to Texas Woman’s University Wednesday, March 27 in the DII National Semifinal inn St. Joseph Missouri, ending a season that saw the Bulldogs finish ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 26-6 record and its first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“It feels like yesterday to be honest,” he said. “We’re still riding the high. We’re able to look back and start talking to the people on campus about what banners to hang, what rings we’re gonna order. It really does start to hit home just everything we’ve been able to accomplish. 

A product of Dowagiac Union High School, Westendorp graduated collegiately from Valparaiso in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in political science (economics) and earned his master’s degree in 2006 in sports administration. While at Valpo, Westendorp was the men’s team manager all through college while working as a practice player for the women’s team.

Westendorp came to Ferris in 2020 after four years as head coach at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California and left with the most coaching victories in program history. From 2010 to 2012, he served two years as Ferris State’s top assistant coach.

Westendorp was impressed with the way his team – led by seniors Chloe Idoni, Mallory McCartney and DeShonna Day and juniors Kenzie Bowers and Kadyn Blanchard – was able to work to improve over the course of the season and play its best basketball during the home stretch.

“They’re history makers,” he said. “This group really has worked hard and the core of this group has been together working towards this for four years. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach them for the last four years so it’s really amazing. … I’m just so proud that they were able to get the payoff this year of all their hard work. Not every team that works as hard as this group does gets to have the payoff – that’s sports. Sometimes you don’t reach all those goals. 

“So for these kids to kind of reach a lot of those goals and ultimately fall just two games short of the ultimate goal of winning a national championship, they can be really proud of setting a new bar for the program.”

A kid from southwest Michigan

Growing up in a basketball family, Westendorp knew coaching was in his blood.  He credits his father, Al Westendorp, for showing him leadership excellence while coaching him all through high school. 

“I’m a southwest Michigan kid,” he said. “The time he had there were formative years for my experience to compete at school with my friends.”

According to Westendorp, several friends from Dowagiac reached out over the course of Ferris’ tourney run to wish him well.

“As we’ve gone on this run, I’ve heard from people I keep close contact with and some who I haven’t heard from in a long time,” he said. “It reconnected us at least a little bit. It was really special to hear from those people and see the love they still have from a southwest Michigan kid who had a team do a pretty cool thing this year.”

Between Caleb Murphy’s success on the gridiron and Westendorp’s on the court sidelines, Dowagiac has played an important role in the elevation of Ferris State’s athletic department in recent years. Westendorp recalls meeting Caleb Murphy for the first time.

“It was a whole lot of fun having Caleb around,” Westendorp said. “He was a special dude. The first time I met Caleb, he saw me and yelled ‘Dowagiac!’ He said ‘I saw you got the job and you’re a Dowagiac kid.’ Every time he saw me around he would yell ‘Dowagiac.’ He’s a cool guy.”

Women’s hoops on the rise

While the women’s team has had a strong following for years, As the coach of a women’s basketball team, Westendorp has been able to experience the sport’s meteoric rise in popularity at the national level in recent years thanks to the star power of athletes like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and more, even at the Division II level.

“It’s absolutely incredible to see the support,” he said. “At Ferris, we have tons of support for our women’s programs. It’s great at the Division II level because we play double headers with our men’s program. The fans show up to the start of our game and stay all the way through the end of the guy’s game. We feel like we have two main acts. At the national level, it’s awesome to see the eyeballs on the TV screens setting record ratings and a lot of that just goes to the quality of basketball and quality of play has really increased, especially the last five to ten years. The quality of the game has made it into the mainstream where now people are starting to pay a little closer attention.”

Westendorp said the star power of the Division 1 level is having a positive impact on all levels of girls and women’s basketball.

“Now that we have these big stars that are drawing eyeballs to the television, it’s had a trickle-down effect that people are starting to notice there’s really good basketball at the college level. In Michigan, there’s really good basketball happening at the high school level. I think people are just starting to pay attention now that we’ve had a few of these big stars turn people’s eyes to the TV. People are noticing how good the game is at the women’s level.”

While Westendorp is proud of what his team was able to accomplish this year, he knows there is more work to be done and believes the future of the program is bright.

“The great part of this year is that the kids did it the right way,” he said. “We have a lot of returning players that are going to be growing into bigger roles, we graduate some of our key performers and I know that the bar just keeps getting raised a little bit higher and higher. This kind of success will have an impact in recruiting. We’ve been able to attract some very talented young women to our program. And we have this kind of success, hopefully, keep attracting more and more and more talented players so that we can stay one of the premier programs in Division II.”