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August 18, 2013

Marty Kirkland: Community plays big role in return of Roadrunners

Two days from now, the Dalton State College women’s volleyball team will take a trip of a little more than 200 miles that should only span about three hours. But it’s a journey that has been years in the making.

From the time I arrived Dalton in 2005, the question would pop up from time to time: “When is Dalton State going to have sports?” I’m sure that inquiry was made to other sports writers at The Daily Citizen long before I arrived, too. In fact, it probably happened almost as soon as the athletic program died out at what was then Dalton Junior College.

The Roadrunners played men’s basketball from 1968 to 1978, and there were golf and tennis teams as well, but it’s been decades since the Carpet Capital was home to intercollegiate athletics beyond the club level. The school that became Dalton College in 1987 and Dalton State College 11 years after that gets back into the game Tuesday when the Roadrunners head for Southern Wesleyan University in Central, S.C.

That 7:30 p.m. volleyball match will be the season opener for the host Warriors, but for the Roadrunners it will open up a world of opportunity. Why? Because for some prospective students — and prospective donors and boosters, which is perhaps just as important — having sports makes you a “real” college.

Dalton State volleyball player Tori Pierce, a freshman, believes that when her team takes the court it will be an important step not only for those who will compete but for the whole student body.

“I definitely think the campus will grow,” Pierce said in regard to the potential impact of athletics. “I think people will get more involved with the school. Dalton State is more of a ‘go to class and go home’ school, but hopefully now that there’s a sport, it will help not just the sports go but the whole campus.”

Still, I’m sure there are some who question whether every institution of higher learning needs sports. With dollars now stretched to threads in just about every phase of American life, including education, it’s certainly fair to wonder if adding something extracurricular is prudent. And that question became relevant in this town when Dalton State made it clear in recent years that athletics was coming back.

But John Schwenn, the college’s president, made this point about the upside of sports at a press conference introducing Derek Waugh as the school’s athletic director on Feb. 1, 2012: “To me, athletics rounds out a good collegiate experience. We’ve all been on other campuses with athletics, and I think all of us have benefited. We’ve seen what they do for a campus and a community. But they also offer a lot to our students, and I want our students to have the same opportunities as on other campuses.”

In some ways, that opportunity also meant responsibility for students, including the ones who don’t care whether or not someone decked out in blue and white bounces a basketball up and down the court. Like most other schools with athletic departments, Dalton State students now pay a fee beyond their regular tuition that goes toward the school’s sports programs. But Dalton State has also reached out broadly for support beyond campus, counting on private donations and public facilities to make the Roadrunners a reality and a financially feasible one at that.

When Waugh took the job, he knew the program wouldn’t work without community support because he knew it wouldn’t work without community money. So having things like a $2.5 million pledge from the Charitable Mashburn Trust gave him confidence, as did having Dalton Parks and Recreation Department’s Lakeshore Park tennis facilities for the Roadrunners’ use. Those are just two examples.

“I’ve had probably two dozen sort of seminal moments,” Waugh said, “where I just sat back and was absolutely blown away in a very good way.”

Then there are the words of acceptance he has heard in little everyday conversations since he’s been in town the past year and a half.

“Little did I know how supportive the community would be when I first took the job,” he said.

It can’t be emphasized enough how important that is, because in regard to the question, “When is Dalton State going to have sports?” I always wondered not when but “Where?” as I would drive by the campus and try to fathom cramming sports facilities into that layout. The community partnerships — and some on-campus improvements and additions — have answered that question just fine.

This school year, Dalton State will field teams for men’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis and women’s volleyball. Other sports will be added in future years, but Waugh marvels at the fact that this year’s teams — which will compete as non-conference members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — have been successful in filling their rosters during a very short recruiting window. That, too, is quite an achievement.

Waugh is excited. He senses, from attending practices, that Dalton State’s student-athletes are excited. And he knows that people in Dalton are excited.

But what feels like a beginning for many feels like the end of something to Waugh, who joked that it will be “great to have the athletics part of athletics director start to come in play.”

He’s realistic but hopeful about this season’s success, wanting to see the school’s teams do well in the arena and the classroom. And while he’s also realistic about the athletic department’s growth for the near future — no, football is not on his wish list — he seems even more hopeful about that being a success.

So while we no longer have to wonder when Dalton State will have sports, we can still ask “Why?”

Waugh hopes to always have an answer. Because he hopes to always be working on another way the Dalton State athletic department can be as good for the community as the community has been for it.

“The day we feel like we’re not building or are content,” he said, “is probably the day when I need to find something else to do.”

Marty Kirkland is sports editor of The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at martykirkland@daltoncitizen.com

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