It didn’t end like anyone thought it would, but Southwest Virginia Community College’s first year with a full-fledged athletic program was a success.
“It went really well. We fielded every team that we set out to field. We were very competitive in the region,” SWCC Athletic Director Jason Vencill said. “We had some victories along the way and, of course, some defeats, but ultimately I felt it went really well...
“We definitely had some team accolades as well as some individual accolades too. I couldn’t be any prouder of year one with the way it went for us.”
Fourteen men’s and women’s programs began competition last fall in Wardell. They all return for the 2020-21 school year, with cornhole added as a fifth non-NJCAA or intramural sport for the Flying Eagles.
“We had successes across the board in several of our sports,” Vencill said. “It was definitely a good foundation to build on as we get ready for year two of that competition.”
The volleyball team was among the most successful programs, placing in the top portion of Region 10 in the National Junior College Athletic Association. The women’s basketball team finished with 12 wins, falling in multiple overtimes to a top-10 ranked team along the way.
There was plenty more, from eight wins from the men’s basketball team to several standouts on the wrestling mats. Both the baseball and softball teams were also showing progress as well in the spring.
Most of the 200 or so athletes who took part in athletics last season are back for more.
“We were pretty much a freshman-laden group without any senior classmen,” Vencill said. “Building upon that experience and the things they went through, we are real optimistic about where we are going in year two.”
The primary issue last year was unavoidable, when the spring campaign was stopped in mid-March by the coronavirus. All those spring sports athletes have been given an extra year of eligibility by the NJCAA to continue their athletic careers with the Flying Eagles.
“There is always disappointment when you don’t get to play,” Vencill said. “You are an athlete, you have been doing this for a long time as well as the coaches, everybody wants to get out and compete.
“Looking at the circumstances and what was going on, it wasn’t just a single institution. I mean the NCJAA as a region shut down in the spring and suspended everything so that made it a lot easier.”
What year two will look like due to the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. SWCC, which has remained open throughout the spring and summer - just offering their services in new ways - is working with the NJCAA and other organizations to determine just how those sports will look in the fall.
“It is always tricky, and it’s not just an institutional-only decision,” said Vencill, who added that the fall semester will open as planned via on-campus courses while practicing social distancing and through online methods. “You have got the NJCAA and other safety protocols you have to hit so we are kind of working through everything and hope we will have a decision pretty soon that we can relay to everybody.”
First of concern, of course, is the safety of all involved.
“The number one thing you have always got to do is put player safety first. A lot of times you are protecting an athlete from themselves because we are all very competitive in athletics and everybody wants to get back at it as quick as they can,” Vencill said. “Our number one priority always is going to be player safety.
“It is just making sure we are prepared and ready to do everything we can to not only protect the players, but protect the spectators, the coaches, the referees, everybody that is involved. As we work through that, it is just finding that right path.”
Vencill is anxious to see his student-athletes get the opportunity to compete in NJCAA postseason competition in the year ahead. They had to sit out last year due to the NJCAA-mandated one year probation period.
“It is getting everybody to buy into that mission, looking at the long goal instead of the short term,” said Vencill, of the message to incoming recruits last season. “That is behind us so it opens up a lot more opportunities in recruiting and getting that competitive edge because now we can start competing for those large accomplishments this year.”
Vencill said his coaching staff - which includes new men’s and women’s soccer coach Fernando Arellano and golf coach Brian Hooker - have been using technology to stay in contact with athletes. They have used similar methods to reach recruits, not only in SWCC’s four-county footprint, but also students from outside the region.
For instance, Malou Lachenderer of Denmark was an exchange student who earned Region 10 first-team women’s basketball honors last season.
“Now that we actually have that ability in year two to go to the region tournament and move from there, that opens up a lot more opportunities for our returning athletes as well as the new ones that are coming in to be able to have that opportunity,” said Vencill, who added that the addition of athletics was just one of several reasons why SWCC has seen an enrollment increase. “I think it is wonderful that our local athletes still have that opportunity to come and compete here as well as surrounding them with outside talent. I am real excited to see that.”
The Flying Eagles are in Region 10 with NJCAA schools from North Carolina, South Carolina and parts of West Virginia.
“I think we have an opportunity with the time we have got and some of the talent we are bringing in to really make an impact in Region 10 this year,” Vencill said. “I have always said I feel very confident in my coaching staff, I think we have some of the greatest coaches in the region so I am very excited to see where we go next year.”
Sports can’t come back soon enough for Vencill, who was pleased that SWCC could host a region high school basketball tournament last winter and will host an NJCAA district wrestling meet in 2021.
“We are all anxious to get back to sports. Athletics is one of those constants that always seems to be there,” Vencill said. “This is an unprecedented time when even professional sports are down so everybody is eager to get back and get back to the norm.
“It is just finding out what the new norm is going to be after we get all the guidance and adapting the way we deliver and put on athletic events to meet those safety guidelines and procedures.”