On April 12, 2011 Merritt Whitley released her firstalbum titledSecretand with that releaserevealed to an entirely new audience the secret the sophomore tennis player at Eastern Illinois had been keeping from many people: that she was a budding country music singer as well as a NCAA Division I student-athlete.
Holding that secret, so to say, has beensomething that Whitley did most of her life and until recently did not revealto a large audience.
“I’ve been singing my entire life and competed in my first talent show when I was in first grade singing a song byAmy Grant,” said Whitley. “In high school I had a friend who was in a band. He was instrumental in me starting to write my own songs and picking up the guitar. I did it on my own and didn’t show anyone my music for several years.”
Then camean opportunity to put her talents in front of a large audience as she was asked to write a song for a cousin’s wedding. She wrotethesongEternally Yours. That song eventually led to meeting a music producer and in the summer of 2010 she went to Nashville to record her first CD.
When asked about what her favorite song is, Whitley without hesitation replies,“Eternally Yours. It was the wedding song that I created. I love wedding songs. They capture love in its truest form.”
Without hesitation is also how Whitley has attacked not only her music career but everything that she has done in life. When looking at schools to play collegiate tennis, Whitley decided that Eastern Illinois was the right place for her. In fact, she was so sure that she jumped attheopportunity to finish high school early and join the women’s team following the winter break.
“I fell in love withtheEastern campus from the moment I arrived. It is very compact and I loved the castle (Old Main) and the feel it gives campus,” Whitley said. “I knew I was going to come to EIU and during my visit Coach (John) Blackburn mentioned that the team was going to be a player short in the spring. I talked it over with my mom and realized I could graduate early and join the teamin January. I have no regrets with that decision and I was able to go back and take part in prom and graduation so I don’t feellike I totally missedout on my senior year.”
That desire to work hard and succeed has paid off so far for the Kansas City, Mo., native. She recently completed her second season as a member of the Panthers women’s tennis team, holds a 3.23 GPA in journalism and continues to work on her music career. The thing that seems to keep it all together is Whitley’s ability tofind balance in everything she does.
“I like that I’m able to balance out the things that I really enjoy doing. I’m very adamant about finishing school and getting my degree,” added Whitley. “I’m able to go to Nashville and perform my music and I can also go to school at Eastern to play tennis and work towards my degree. I think of it as the best of bothworlds.”
Taking advantage of those opportunities does not come by itself. Whitley has done a good job of surrounding herselfwith a great support system,namely her parents, high school friends and current college teammates.
“My teammates are the most supportive group of girls. Even theguy’s team has shown support. Any time I have performed locally they are always there and singing my songs,” she says. “My parents have been my biggest support system and I appreciate all that theyhavesacrificed. They paid for tennis all those years when I was younger and now they are supporting me with my music career dreams.”
Whitley’s currenttask is her return to Nashville this summer to work on promoting her first album and getting her songs on the radio. The junior-to-be does realize that it will be a long journey but she is excited to see where it goes. More than anything she believes a simple motto of“everything happens for a reason”.
“If I go out on the tennis court and I lose that match, it happened for a reason. You take that lessonand go back and practice to improve on that thing that made you lose,” said Whitley. “That’s the same with music. If I have a badperformance, that happened for a reason and you have to grow from that experience. You try to learn as much asyou can fromeverything around you and thepeople around you.”