Southwestern Michigan College organizes Special Olympics basketball tournament

Published 9:25 am Tuesday, March 12, 2019

DOWAGIAC — Southwestern Michigan College sports management students organized a Special Olympics basketball tournament Feb. 23 for six teams from Cass, Berrien and Van Buren counties. Students arranged every aspect, from team relations, officiating and tickets to concessions, music and encouragement from SMC mascot Ronnie Roadrunner.

Jeff Conwell, sports management major from Gobles, officiated the three contests. He began refereeing for elementary students last year while a high school basketball and football player. He also officiates SMC intramurals.

“This is my first time working with Special Olympics,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was a good experience. I’m glad I had the opportunity.”

Conwell chose SMC to live on campus and for its sports management program when he thought he wanted to become an athletic director.

“Today, I’m going more toward coaching or the media side of things,” he said.

Project lead Nicole Maroney, from New Buffalo, volunteered with the Marshall County, Indiana, Special Olympics during high school, when she played ice hockey, volleyball and softball for Culver Academies.

“We did a lot of one-on-one stuff paired with an athlete for the day, supporting them in all their events,” Maroney said. “I also ran the scoreboard table and announced winners of events.”

“A very bad hockey injury junior year left me unable to play at the level I wanted. I had to decide what else I wanted to do with my life,” Maroney said. “When I found out about sports management, I started taking stats and doing play-by-play for my hockey team and realized I could turn it into a career. I want to go into a non-profit like Special Olympics or to work in my community where I live to help promote health and wellness.”

The National Women’s Hockey League launched in March 2015 with four teams, since expanded to five: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps. There’s also USA Hockey, recognized by the International and U.S. Olympic Committees as ice hockey’s governing body. There are also hockey broadcasting opportunities for women, Maroney said.

With the National Football League’s Sarah Thomas, the first fulltime female referee since 2015, officiating the recent playoff game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers, “The other sports are looking to put more women into positions like that,” Maroney said. “It’s very exciting to see where women in hockey will go in what has mainly been regarded as a men’s sport. … When I toured SMC, I fell in love with it. It’s such a great school with so many opportunities for students. The sports management program really drew me in. A lot of schools I looked at had event management or sports media, [but lacked a complete program.]”

Nizhoni Church, rotating between concessions and the scoreboard table, was born in Michigan but grew up in New Mexico. After obtaining her SMC associate degree, Church wants to transfer to Central Michigan University for a bachelor’s degree in athletic training.

“I’ve played sports my whole life, mainly basketball and volleyball,” said Church, also experiencing her first Special Olympics event.

“This involved all aspects of being a sports management professional,” said instructor Ritch Reynolds, who assigned his 12 Introduction to Recreation students to the project.

Reynolds saw gains in spectators, concessions sales and student participation from the first tournament two years ago.

“Our next major event is March 17,” Reynolds said. “I’m taking a van full of students to Little Caesars Arena for a facility tour, meet-and-greet with various operational departments and then we will be taking in a Detroit Pistons-Toronto Raptors game.

“Also, we are again sponsoring late-model driver Roger Northrup for the upcoming racing season at South Bend Speedway. Students will be collecting information throughout the season to manage his social media functions, as well as build a sponsorship package for the following season.”

SMC’s Associate in Applied Science Degree in Sports Management provides graduates with skills required for entry-level positions, said SMC officials. Potential employment opportunities include facility and event management, sports and recreational programming, athletic coaching and sports media. Students are encouraged to continue their educations at four-year colleges to further refine their knowledge and abilities.