COLUMN: Things just keep getting better

I was shocked last fall when Southwestern Michigan College announced it was restoring its cross country program.

I was shocked because it had been 25 years since the school dropped athletics. That was one of the saddest days of my career. Writing that story was like having a knife stuck in my back.

To say last fall was one of the best days would be a bit of an understatement. When I received word that cross country, the sport that helped put Southwestern Michigan College on the map — not only nationally, but internationally — I have to be honest, I shed a few tears of joy.

So, you can only imagine what it felt like Tuesday afternoon when SMC announced the return of four more sports starting in 2022. Not only men’s and women’s basketball was coming back, but so were wrestling and volleyball, all of which have long-standing traditions of success.

A flood of memories came pouring out as I recalled all the great teams I got to cover at SMC throughout the years. There were conference and regional championships, as well as national tournament appearances and a national championship.

Then there were the names of all the great players I got to see while covering the Roadrunners. Too many names to mention here in the space I have, but they still trigger some fond moments in my mind.

I will touch on a few highlights of the years I covered SMC. Two of them are from basketball, while the other is from volleyball.

One of the most stressful games I ever was a part of at SMC was a women’s basketball game between the Roadrunners and the Lansing Stars, the top two teams in the conference. I had to work as the official scorer that night, something I did from time to time.

The game was a battle for the top spot in the conference, which only added to the pressure of scoring the game. The real pressure mounted as we went through a pair of overtimes. Adding up the scoreboard quickly at the end of regulation and each overtime was nerve-racking as I had to make sure the score matched what was on the scoreboard at the end of each one.

The final score of that game? Southwestern 106, Lansing 104.

Then there was the men’s basketball game against national powerhouse Jackson Community College, which featured future National Basketball Association star Kevin Willis, who would go on to play at Michigan State University and with the Atlanta Hawks.

Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote was in the stands watching Willis and another player, who they were looking to bring to East Lansing for their final two years.

There was a buzz in the Zollar Sports Center when people realized who was sitting in the stands. Then there was the skirmish that ensued on the floor during the game, which was physical from the outset. One of the Lansing players grabbed SMC Coach Denny Parks by the throat during the altercation. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the game went on with Jackson taking home the win.

Jim Bermingham, who had led Berrien Springs to a string of state championships, was brought in to turn SMC into a national power. Bermingham did that quickly. One of his teams qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association national finals in Miami, Florida.

I was fortunate enough to talk the publisher into allowing me to fly to Miami to cover SMC in the finals. It was a memorable trip, although the Roadrunners did not have a long run at the championships.

The part I remember most was leaving Miami in the early morning when it was already 76 degrees, and the humidity was so high that you were soaking wet by the time you got to the shuttle from the hotel doors.

When I landed in South Bend on Thanksgiving afternoon, it was spitting snow. To say the least, I did not have the proper clothes on for that type of weather and thought I was going to freeze to death getting from the terminal to the car to come home.

I hope to make some new memories with the SMC sports programs beginning this fall when cross country returns. I know the commitment is there for the teams to be successful. The facilities that are already available and the renovation of the Zollar Sports Center should give the athletes the tools they need to be successful.

 

Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at scott.novak@leaderpub.com.

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