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Building Greatness: Westcliff Athletics Blazes its Own Trail

By Brandon Petersen and Katie Rouse, 06/26/20, 4:15PM PDT


When Shawn Harris started at Westcliff University as Athletic Director in February of 2019, the Warriors’ athletic program consisted of just men’s and women’s basketball, as well as men’s and women’s volleyball. 

There were only six coaches of staff, approximately 40 athletes on campus, and Westcliff was not part of any athletic association - it was completely independent. 

Almost a year and a half later, and in spite of a worldwide pandemic that has put all sports on hold indefinitely, Westcliff Athletics is thriving. 

Harris, who was recently promoted to Dean of Athletics, has overseen a complete transformation at Westcliff. What once was four programs is now 20. A coaching staff of six has ballooned to over 40, and the number of athletes they lead has grown from 40 to over 450. 

“It is truly amazing to see how we took good to great in a short time period. This only happens when you commit to something bigger than yourself and you rise to a level much higher than yourself,” Harris said. “Don't wait for the right opportunity: Create it. To see an opportunity we must be open to all thoughts. Opportunity is everywhere. The key is to develop the vision to see it.”

But the growth doesn’t include just numbers. Within eight months of taking over and identifying the need for Westcliff to find a home association and league to compete within, Harris and his staff completed the NAIA application process.

The process included several requirements and suggestions put forth by the association including but not limited to a minimum of 200 athletes, facilities for practice and competition, compliance and eligibility, in-game and season statistics tracking, and medical oversight of all athletes. After completing the process, Westcliff was officially voted into the NAIA by the NAIA Council of Presidents on April 1, 2020.

Three months earlier, Westcliff was a unanimous choice voted into the California Pacific Conference, the league in which the Warriors will compete for championships beginning in 2021. 

“There is nothing better than aligning yourself with a great governing body like the NAIA. Jim Carr has an amazing vision and passion for sports that will make the NAIA the premier association for the next few decades,” Harris said. “Joining the Cal Pac Conference was only fitting because Don Ott and myself share the same vision of greater things to come in the future: Greatness only.”

Westcliff’s accomplishments as a program in such a short amount of time speaks to Harris’ vision when he came on board in early 2019. That vision included a strategy of scheduling strong opponents, NCAA Division I opponents, if possible, in order to place the Westcliff brand in front of as many eyes as possible, often through ESPN broadcasts. 

The strategy paid off. Across programs, Westcliff faced several big-name opponents last year, including Long Beach State, San Diego State, UCI, Loyola Marymount and Weber State. 

Not only were the Warriors placed on the big stage in each of those contests, giving the brand an exponential boost of exposure, but Westcliff was also able to establish a working rapport with those programs, which should translate into future contests. 

“It’s simple, we love to compete at the highest level. I personally believe that competition is healthy for growth without the politics,” Harris said. “Sports is a meritocracy and our only expectation is that we have an opportunity to compete in an uncontaminated environment. 

“Playing all levels of competition allows us to display this belief each year.”

Inclusion and diversity are also at the heart of Harris’ strategy at Westcliff. Ten out of 15 members of the athletic department staff are women or minorities. It’s a young, vibrant AD staff, that represents the international community, taking its lead from the University itself, the student body of which represents 75 different nations worldwide.

Time and again, Harris has shown the commitment to put the lives and college experiences of his student-athletes at the forefront of his thinking.

Over the past year, Westcliff has added an on-campus weight room and has upgraded its practice facilities. It has added a strength and conditioning program for all teams, and has secured some of the finest playing facilities in all of Southern California. 

The Westcliff soccer programs, baseball, softball and beach volleyball all call the Orange County Great Park home, a premier sporting complex with world-class facilities and venues, undoubtedly among the best in all of the NAIA. 

Harris has also overseen the development of the Westcliff Student Athlete Advisory Committee which acts as the liaison between the student-athletes and athletic and academic leadership, providing a voice to the student-athletes and offering insight to the student-athlete experience, policies, and departmental issues.  

At the heart of all of Westcliff’s success is one simple motto, but one that permeates everything the Warriors do, as athletes, and as an athletic staff. It’s called the 5C’s. 

“We look for great athletes with superior character, who can establish an exceptional culture, who will make a tremendous impact in the community, by being fully committed to excellence, which will translate into championships.” These are Westcliff’s 5C’s.  

“The 5C’s are the foundation of our principles and beliefs of our Athletic program,” Harris said. “I created an environment that feels safe, fueled first by top leaders willing to role model vulnerability and take personal responsibility for their shortcomings and missteps; grounded in a shared commitment by coach and student-athletes inspired to helping each other grow and get better daily.”

Harris has also bolstered the athletic department itself. Since taking over, Harris has led Westcliff in introducing departments of Sports Medicine, Sports Science, Compliance, Event Management and Sports Information. He is also helping to write Westcliff student curriculum, which will soon include a Sports Management concentration for the university’s Business program.

Assuming everything with the pandemic goes to plan, the Warriors will return to their fields and courts of practice in mid-August, per the NAIA’s newly released (COVID-19 adjusted) policy. 

“The past year has been very exciting and our future looks extremely bright,” Harris said. “There are never any guarantees in life, however, we will enjoy the journey of what-if and why-not. It’s exhilarating!”

To contact Brandon Petersen, e-mail

To contact Katie Rouse, e-mail