NOVAK: I never imagined it would happen

Since Southwestern Michigan College dropped its sports programs in the late 1990s, the topic of bringing them back has popped up from time to time.

To be honest, I did not believe it would happen while I was still sports editor at Leader Publications. There seemed to be too much baggage with the way things ended and no real desire to bring them back.

So, you can only imagine my surprise when I get an email Wednesday morning stating that SMC was going to resurrect its cross country program beginning next fall. A huge smile came across my face as I starting thinking back to all the great teams that SMC, under the direction of Coach Ron Gunn, put together.

The facts about those teams are available in the story that accompanies this column, so there is no real need to reiterate them, but I can remember covering those teams when I started working at the Dowagiac Daily News in the 1980s. I remember the excitement they brought the community of Dowagiac, especially when SMC hosted the National Junior College Athletic Association’s marathon championships in the summer.

The entire community would get involved. It took months of planning to make sure that it was a first-class event, which it was. Then on race day, community members would come out to cheer on the runners from around the country, now just the SMC participants. They would set up sprinklers for the runners to help cool them off during those hot July days.

Cross country helped put SMC on the map. The Roadrunners were nationally ranked constantly and were always vying for national championships. They dominated the state cross country, junior college teams. They were always the favorite at those races.

I followed the Roadrunners out to Idaho one fall to cover them in the NJCAA National Cross Country Championships in the Snake River Canyon. You know, the one made famous by Evel Knievel and his rocket-powered motorcycle. You could still see one of the ramps from the canyon floor.

It was quite the experience getting to Idaho. I took a plane to Salt Lake City where I had a six-hour wait for the bus to Twin Falls County, Idaho. I caught a ride into the city where the bus station was, bought a ticket and then had to try to entertain myself for the next five hours.

I remember walking through the downtown area and seeing the old Salt Palace where the Utah Jazz used to play. On this day, the band Midnight Oil was doing a soundcheck for its concert that night. You could hear the band playing, as well as the Aborigine band that was the opening act.

I almost caught a ride up into the snow-covered mountains to the ski resort, but thought better of it. I did not want to miss my bus as there was not another one that would get me to the event on time. I arrived in the middle of nowhere in Idaho at 2 a.m. and had to wait in the cold until Gunn could come from the hotel to pick me up.

It was quite a trip.

I have missed covering sports at SMC. I met a lot of nice young men and women and got to see their talents on display. I got to get to know and become friends with many outstanding coaches during that time. So, I look forward to meeting new athletes and a new coach when cross country gets up and running next fall.

But the biggest thing I am excited about is that some of our area student-athletes, who go elsewhere because there is no local cross country program, can finally start their collegiate careers right here in Dowagiac. I can think of dozens of kids, if not hundreds, who probably would have spent their first two years at SMC.

Like Gunn said to me after finding out that the sport was returning, many of those runners that came to Dowagiac left with a better scholarship offer than they would have gotten out of high school.

Now begins the wait. First, there will be a new coach hiring, and then there will be the signing of the first scholarship runner. And finally, there will be that first practice, which leads to the first competition.

For now, all I can say is, “Go Roadrunners!”

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