SMC finds instant success in athletics – HORIZONS 2023

Published 6:30 am Friday, March 10, 2023

When Southwestern Michigan College decided to revive its athletic teams after more than 25 yards in 2020, no one could have predicted what would happen next.

The SMC Board of Trustees and President Dr. Joe Odenwald hoped that with their decision to resurrect the Roadrunners’ iconic cross country program in the all of 2021, the teams would be competitive.

When the board and school president decided to add volleyball, wrestling, men’s and women’s basketball, and a bass fishing team the following year, the same would be true.

The results did not even come close to their expectations. All five teams found instant success and surpassed those expectations, and then some.

“I hoped for it,” Oldenwald said when asked if he thought what the SMC teams have achieved in their first year of competition was possible. “I don’t know if we really knew to be honest. It was hard for me to gauge really what the competition was really going to be like because we had been out of it for so long. There were some things that we did that would enable us to overcome some of the normal hurdles that a new program has.”

Those two things were to hire full-time coaches for almost all sports and build some fantastic facilities.

“Those two things I thought should ensure us to be competitive right out of the gate,” Oldenwald said. “But again, we didn’t know.”

While on the outside looking in, the story of SMC’s return to athletes may look like an overnight success. But according to Michael O’Brien, vice president for institutional advancement, there a lot of work behind the scene to help make that success possible.

“There is always a lot of work behind the scenes before that success happens, even though it seems like it was fast,” he said. “We spent a lot of time evaluating and finding the right coaches that understood the importance of the academics and the athletics together so that they would be able to go out and recruit members of a team, not just fill the roster. But find the different pieces that would get along pretty well.

“And even though you have very skilled individual players, you have to come together as a team. So as I was talking to the coaches during the interview process about how they would build a team, what they think the most important things are first, and then how they would come into a daunting situation for them starting up a new program, what their priorities were.”

O’Brien added that they were pretty intentional about who they hired and why.

The amount of time it took from conception to opening up competition might be even more miraculous than how quickly the Roadrunners have turned their programs into winners.

According to Oldenwald, it was just six weeks.

“June of 2020 was the first conversation where I had a green light to do some investigating,” he said. “It was by the end of July of 2020 that we announced we were going to pursue a return in the fall of 2021. There were a lot of things that people have forgotten about.”

Oldenwald said that the National Junior College Athletic Association had gotten rid of Division II, where SMC wanted to compete. There was only Division I and Division III.

“They were bringing back Division II, and all of Michigan was going Division II, but nobody told us that,” he said. “So, we had applied DI. Then I had to back the car up and file an appeal to get us out of one and into two, or we were not going to be able to compete in Michigan. There was no telling where we would have been running.”

Another key, according to Oldenwald, was that SMC was able to compete in the postseason.

“The other thing we had to do, that we got done by the end of 2020 that I thought was so critical in recruiting that first group of student-athletes, was we got the ability to compete in postseason competition the first year. The argument we made to the junior college athletic association was, ‘look, we were a member for 28 or 29 years. We were faithful payers and good citizens. So, we got that done.”

The next step in the process was a trip to Iowa and Nebraska to look at some junior college facilities to get an idea of what would need to be done back in Dowagiac to make SMC attractive to student-athletes and their parents.’

“in March, a few weeks before that, we drove around Michigan and looked at some things,” Oldenwald said. “Immediately, we started to look at what we needed to do to the facilities. I think that was before we even went to Iowa and Nebraska. What we drew up that day is what we have today. That is the wildest thing about all this.”

In May of 2021, the board of trustees approved the renovations to the Charles O. Zollar building and to start looking for coaches for the additional sports. By the middle of the fall, or early December, the staff was in place, and the recruiting of potential student-athletes was under way.

“At that point, Coach [Rodell] Davis had been a year in August and then the other coaches starting coming on,” O’Brien said. “I think Coach [Jenny] Nate and Coach [Todd[ Hesson were on board in December. Certainly, by the middle of December, we were up and running.”

Around the same time, Southwestern Michigan applied to rejoin the Michigan Community College Athletic Association. The school had to have five teams to rejoin the conference.

“We kind of had to do the same thing that we did with the national association, which was to go in and appeal the one-year probationary period to compete in the postseason,” O’Brien said. “Theoretically, we would not have been able to compete in the volleyball districts or basketball districts, hopefully, this year, but we were able to go in and they had to amend the constitution to allow a re-admitted member to participate in postseason play in their first year. We had the support of the body, but the by-laws or constitution of the conference did not allow for that eventually.

“So, when I talk about behind-the-scenes things to kind of make this happen, those four for volleyball in the postseason would not have happened if we weren’t proactive on that part of it.”

Also in December, Southwestern Michigan announced the donation from 1st Source Bank, which kicked off a string of donations and other things that helped the program build momentum.

With the first year of volleyball, wrestling and basketball nearing completion, SMC officials will now pause and evaluate how the first two years of athletics have gone and see what might be the next steps.

“We want to see how this winds up competition-wise,” Oldenwald said. “I think cross country took a step forward this year in terms of performance. Again, the disadvantage we had in 2021 was that we had no coach here in the spring working with people like we did in 2022. Then you added people to the roster that really helped, so we moved up in our ability to compete. We were just behind Grand Rapids [Community College] in regional. I want to nip them this year. We want to get ahead of them. Lansing [Community College] is going to be tough, but we are really close to Grand Rapids and I want to see us get over that hump and get right on the heels of Lansing.”

Oldenwald added that they want to see which students plan to return for another year.

“They are doing well academically so far,” he said. “We are pleased with that. We have got a couple of teams that are over 3.0 [GPA], which is great. There won’t be anything new for 2023-24. We kind of want to have another full cycle of that. We are beginning to look at things. I think the challenge we’ve got is that we always have to be sensitive to Title IX balance and those opportunities. Right now, between the trails and the fieldhouse and little things we have done over in Lyons [Building] for wrestling, everybody has really good facilities to prepare and compete in.

“To do anything else, it is going to require that type of investment, and that kind of investment is significant, and in some ways, a real barrier. So, we have to be careful what we pick and choose. We certainly have looked at a variety of things, we know what those costs are, and they are challenging. I think by the end of this calendar year what is next.”

Oldenwald said the school is not in a hurry to move forward with additional sports., nor will it add five or six sports simultaneously like it did in 2022.

“You will probably see us as we move forward pick off a thing or two at a time,” he said. “We’ll make some decisions before probably this year closes to be ready for 2024-25 if we are going to be able to do something else.”

O’Brien added that if and when the college expands its athletic department, there will be competition for the Roadrunners to face that does not take it to the ends of the earth.

“When we add something, we want to make sure that there are teams around that the students can compete with and there is a path to a championship through the NJCAA,” he said. “Because ultimately, that is what is going to get student-athletes interested. Not just playing, but playing toward a championship or a tournament of real meaning.”