On a crowded national sports landscape, labels such as “greatest of all-time” or “best-ever” are often quickly applied to athletes, teams, and seasons to elevate story lines above the fray of competitors.
That said, calling 2018 the best year in Montreat College’s running history is not mere hyperbole.
The Cavs began the year by having their men’s team win the inaugural Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) Indoor Championships at the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem in February.
Montreat approached the event primarily focused on getting athletes to the indoor nationals rather than winning the conference, yet captured the meet.
“We sat down as a coaching staff and thought ‘How can we position ourselves to maybe get in the hunt and have a good showing but also get people what they need to qualify?’,” said Jason Lewkowicz, director of Montreat’s cross country and track and field programs. “It was a nice surprise to be able to focus on national qualifiers and still win that – it was kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.”
At the NAIA Indoor Nationals in Pittsburg, Kansas in early March, the men’s 4X400m relay team of Tom Hanke, Marcus Medina-Artis, Jared Henderson, and Ahmad Perryman broke the school record with a time of 3:15.23 and finished fifth in the nation to earn All-American honors.
The season then quickly moved outdoors.
In late March, Montreat hosted its own invitational at Pulliam Stadium. Highlights included Lydia Wilson winning the 10,000 meters and hitting the national “B” standard at the distance for the second consecutive year. The men’s 4X100m team (Dalton Crosby II, Joshua Lester-Harris, Ahmad Perryman, Jared Henderson) hit the “A” standard for the NAIA Outdoor Nationals.
Unfortunately, the meet also saw the track teams incur several significant injuries. At the conference outdoor championships, also hosted by Montreat, the Cavs finished third on the men’s side and ninth overall among the women. Despite the residual injuries, the championships still yielded highlights for the team, including Nyaisha Burrell setting a new school record in the 400 meters, Josh Auvil setting new school records in the shot put and hammer throws, and Lester-Harris setting a new school record in the 200 meters.
The team then sent a record contingent to the NAIA Outdoor Nationals in Gulf Shores, Alabama in late May. The women’s representative was Wilson, who qualified in both the marathon and 10,000 meters but competed at the marathon distance. The men sent nine athletes, including Rylan Hincher in the marathon and two full relay teams (4X100m, 4X400m).
In Alabama, Wilson earned All-American honors by finishing eighth in the NAIA in the marathon. “Lydia was the highlight, and it was a good experience having that many athletes there and it helped set the stage for that expectation level to go up, and that’s what we’re looking to do every year,” said Lewkowicz.
It was learning experience for the coaching staff as well. As with most college programs outside of Eugene, Oregon, there is no director of track operations, only coaches working together to handle the additional tasks at hand for national meets. The lessons would come in handy in the fall.
By late summer, athletes were returning to campus, unfortunately, several of them injured on the men’s side from training.
“Guys came in banged up, so basically the season was a process of getting everybody on track and healthy at the right time,” said Lewkowicz. “I think our best performance from a total team perspective was the conference championships.”
The men’s team captured its first-ever AAC cross country championship on November 3rd in Canton, Georgia. With it came an automatic spot in the NAIA Nationals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Freshman Nathan Richards from the western North Carolina town of Franklin finished fourth overall to pace the Cavs’ scorers among the men.
The women also enjoyed a strong showing, finishing fourth overall. Wilson earned a place in the NAIA Nationals, while freshman Skyler Tait, also from Franklin, missed a national bid by .2 seconds and served notice of her potential as the Cavs’ #2 point-scorer.
“We needed everybody to run well at the conference [meet] to beat Milligan, and we did, so that was exciting and it was nice to finally send a team to the nationals,” said Lewkowicz of the men’s performance. “The women ran well. Even though the group was small, they really worked well together. It’s really caused a boon with our recruiting because girls we’re recruiting are seeing the culture that’s been created.”
At the NAIA National Championships, the men finished 21st overall, solidifying their place in the upper echelon nationally while Wilson earned her second All-American recognition of the year and third of her career. Richards finished 41st out of 330 competitors in his first national competition. In Cedar Rapids, Lewkowicz was named the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) South Region Coach of the Year.
The Cavs then closed out their calendar year with strong showings at both the Montreat College Indoor Kickoff in late November and the JDL College Kickoff Classic on December 1 in Winston-Salem. Although staged outdoors at Pulliam Stadium, the former is considered an indoor event. The two events produced three national qualifiers for Montreat, including Wilson, Perryman, and freshman Israel Diaz, who set a school record in the high jump in the process.
The following weekend, Hincher and Wilson qualified for the 2019 NAIA Nationals in the marathon by hitting the standard at the Kiawah Island Half-Marathon on December 8. Hincher finished fourth overall out of a field of more than 3,200 finishers, while Wilson finished sixth overall among women.
“Three indoor qualifiers and two outdoor qualifiers before the calendar year is over is nice to have and we can build off that momentum,” said Lewkowicz.
The best news for Lewkowicz and the school’s running programs this year was the return to a more regular and visible presence of assistant coach Britten Olinger at practices and meets. Olinger was seriously injured in a February 2017 car crash in downtown Black Mountain.
“All the accolades and all the awards and those things, those have all been great but seeing Britten have a healthy fall and being out and visible, that’s got to be the highlight for me,” said Lewkowicz. “That and seeing our student-athletes just really doing well out in the community. Things we don’t do for attention or publicity, we just have some great young people. They’ve really bought into the culture of trying to honor the Lord with this.”
The efforts of the team are not lost on the large running community in the Swannanoa Valley.
“We’re a sport that’s anonymous in a lot of places. We’ve certainly felt like the community has been happy with how we’ve done and we want to continue to keep pushing the bar higher,” said Lewkowicz.