What a difference a year makes

Fred McCormick

Montreat College has broken ground on what it believes will be a ground-breaking moment in the history of athletics at the school.

Last week, several dozen onlookers at Montreat College’s Black Mountain campus watched the ceremonial turning of dirt for the school’s new $2 million sports complex.

SportsField Engineering is building a facility that will feature a new softball field, an eight-lane running track and a 115 yard-by-75 yard athletic field composed of state-of-the-art replicated grass turf. Located on the college’s Black Mountain campus, the complex will be home to nine of the school’s 17 athletic programs.

The beginning of construction comes as the college celebrates its centennial year. It is part of a turnaround plan instigated by Paul Maurer, who became Montreat College’s eighth president last year. When he began his new job, the college was just a few months removed from an aborted merger with Point University. To revitalize the school, Maurer set out to renew the interests of donors.

Those efforts have begun to pay off - donations last year reached $9.3 million, a figure Maurer believes is an all-time high for the school.

“Momentum is very good. Very strong. We praise God for what is happening,” Maurer told the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony. “We are in year one of the turnaround, and it’s been a good year.”

Among donations last year was a $6 million pledge from an anonymous donor. The out-of-state person, someone who had never been to the campus prior to pledging, contributed an additional $1.25 million for the construction of the sports complex.

“They’re cheering us on,” Maurer said of the donor, who between pledges and contributions has agreed to donate a total of $9 million.

Rusty Pulliam, a Montreat athletics hall of famer and CEO of Pulliam Properties of Asheville, donated the remaining money - $750,000 - for the complex. A 1978 graduate, Pulliam served on the search committee that recommended Maurer last July. His contribution is one of the largest by an alumnus in the history of Montreat.

Maurer, who has been pleased by the deluge of support the school has received, sees the sports complex as key to what he calls the “turnaround” of Montreat College.

“This is the kind of start you want to get of to,” he said. “It has been a great year, and it is amazing what happens when you have the wind to your back.”

Athletic director Jose Larios hopes the energy created by the donors will inspire student-athletes, who account for nearly 70 percent of the schools’ enrollment, he said.

“This complex is a real game changer for the athletic department at Montreat and, really, for the school as a whole,” Larios said. “Even at the small college level, facilities matter. They matter with retention, and they matter with recruiting. Not only are we getting a new facility, but the quality of the facility that we are getting gives us that much more of an edge.”

The complex will not only make it easier to retain athletes for traditional programs like women’s softball . It will also significantly benefit men’s and women’s lacrosse,introduced at the school last year.

“Lacrosse is a sport that has a pretty healthy roster size,” Larios said. “It’s one of the fastest-growing sports, if not the fastest-growing sport, in the Southeast on the high school level.”

With the addition of a new track, the complex will also enhance track and field programs, Larios said.

“Track and field is a sport with a roster range of 50-75 athletes,” he said. “When I arrived at the school as the cross country and track coach in 2007, we basically had a lot of distance runners. We’ve been very limited since we didn’t have a facility. But with this complex we’ll be in a position to add to those (track) numbers.”

Larios believes the addition of the complex will serve as a pivotal moment for Montreat sports which, given the large percentage of student-athletes, serves the college’s greater purpose, he believes.

“Athletics at Montreat College are a really big part of what we are,” he said. “We have a remarkable opportunity to impact lives.”