Coach leads Montreat into conference championships

Tom Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

Jason Lewkowicz joined Montreat College this past June as the Cavaliers’ director of cross country and track and field. Upholding the college’s strong running legacy, as well as that of the Black Mountain region, he has the team ready for the Nov. 7 Appalachian Athletic Conference cross country championships in Knoxville.

On Oct. 24, the Cavaliers’ men’s cross country team placed 10th in a field of 31 in Hardeeville, South Carolina at the Sandshark Invitational. In a meet hosted by USC Beaufort, Montreat was paced by sophomore Daniel Lancaster, a Wilmington native who registered a personal best of 26:50 minutes on the 8K course. Freshman Rylan Hincher of North Wilkesboro tied his personal best of 27:21 to place second for the Cavaliers.

A short-handed and injury-hampered women’s team showed a resilient effort when sophomore Alona Kosenko and senior Samantha Gaskill each finished with a 21:28 mark for the 5K course. Both teams were gaining valuable experience heading into the championships Nov. 7. Lewkowicz already has the Cavaliers’ game plan mapped out for the seminal event of the teams’ respective seasons.

“We’ll go down Friday morning, and we’ll get there in the middle of the day. We’ll walk it, jog it and do all our preview work out there the afternoon before,” he said. He got a look at the conference competition during the Sandshark Invitational.

Listening to the Appalachian State graduate, it becomes clear that Lewkowicz’s approach to the championships, and to running in general, is a studied one. He arrived at Montreat from the same post at Harrisonburg, Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite University. While there he built, from scratch, a formidable program that became one of the nation’s best at the NCAA Division III level.

“I was at EMU for four years. Things were going well and I wasn’t really looking around for other opportunities,” he said. Prior to EMU, Lewkowicz coached at UVA Wise and eight years ago while there helped start a summer running camp at Montreat.

“I always loved the area. I grew up in North Carolina, and I always dreamed of being back home in this part of the state,” Lewkowicz said. Current Montreat athletic director Jose Larios was an accomplished former track athlete as an undergraduate and also formerly directed the Montreat cross country and track and field teams from 2007-11.

“It wasn’t something I was looking for necessarily, but the Lord was kind of leading me in this direction. I felt like it was something that I couldn’t pass up,” Lewkowicz said. The new coach took up residence in Black Mountain with his wife Wendy and their four sons.

With the EMU program well-established Larios directing Cavaliers athletics, the move fell into place.

With ready access to trails and a brand new fitness center on campus, Montreat’s new head coach has the distinct advantage of recruiting athletes to a school – and setting – that largely sell themselves.

Heading into the AAC championships in Knoxville, the coach sees Milligan College as the favorite, then the Cavaliers, followed closely by Tennessee Wesleyan and Bryan.

“Our margin of error is pretty small. Some of the other schools definitely have front runners, but then they drop off. We don’t necessarily have a front runner but we have seven guys that are pretty close together,” said Lewkowicz.

The women’s side will be healthier than it was for the Sandshark Invitational and will look to build on its finishes there.

Both teams are assisted by Breanna Newton, a former runner at Missouri’s Hannibal-LaGrange University. Newton earned All-American accolades while there (2012, 2013) at the 1,000-meter distance. Her ability to train athletes in the lower meter ranges will be a boon for the program in the spring as the Cavaliers’ turn their attention to track and field.

After college, Newton spent part of 2014 on an overseas mission trip with Athletes in Action in South Africa. With its often stunning veld, the country is home to outstanding runners and sweeping vistas - not unlike Montreat.