2020 Year in Review: SMC bringing back cross country tops the list

Published 1:00 am Friday, January 1, 2021

Editor’s note: Leader Publications has put together a list of the top 10 sports stories this year. Here is the top story of 2020. To view stories 10-to-two, visit leaderpub.com


DOWAGIAC — After a 25-year absence, Southwestern Michigan College unanimously approved to bring back cross country at a special meeting on July 22.

The SMC Board of Trustees authorized the administration to pursue the return of a sport for the fall of 2021, which will mark the 40th anniversary of the Roadrunners’ 1981 National Championship.

“During our strategic planning process earlier this year, it became evident that our students, employees and community members were eager for additional ways to connect and bond in common ways, to create a ‘tribe mentality’ if you will,” said President Dr. Joe Odenwald. “This is a natural continuation of our heritage, and being very aware of the current pandemic crisis, we feel introducing a low-contact, outdoor sport is a responsible way to supplement our intramural and club sports opportunities for students and fans in the area.”

Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees Chairman Tom F. Jerdon got the ball rolling. He, along with Odenwald, feels that athletics are a part of a well-rounded college experience. Plus, SMC now has the facilities for training its athletes better and for housing them on campus, officials said.

“SMC’s mission is to provide affordable access to high-quality postsecondary education, including the total college-life experience,” Jerdon said. “Competing for your school and cheering for your teams is certainly part of the college-life experience. With SMC’s incredible legacy of excellence in running and beautiful trails still used every day by the local community, I can’t think of a better sport for Roadrunner athletics than cross country.”

On Oct. 23, SMC announced the hiring of its new cross country coach on a day befitting the sport.

On a cold, wet and windy Friday morning, Oldenwald announced Juris Silenieks, of Grand Rapids, as its new coach. It was also announced that the National Junior College Athletic Association had officially approved SMC’s return to the sport.

Silenieks has a championship pedigree. He attended Syracuse University and was a member of the Orangmen’s 2015 NCAA cross country national championship team. He also was an Olympic trials qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Games, which were postponed due to COVID-19.

His coaching background started at Robert Morris University, a Division I school near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he was the track and field distance coach. He was able to take the Colonials from a fifth-place team in the Northeast Conference to a third-place squad in just two seasons.

“I would not say pressure,” answered Silenieks when asked about restarting a program with such a strong tradition. “There is a lot of excitement. I think when I came down here, I was pretty blown away by the resources. There is a lot of excitement to rebuild that quality team and competition.”

Having no local junior colleges that offer cross country, Silenieks hopes he has an advantage in recruiting.

“There are no many large universities that have what SMC can offer right away,” he said.

After recruiting his first team for the 2021 season, Silenieks wants to make a statement.

“We want to be competitive right away in Region XII right away, that is for sure,” he said.