Mike Cruz, the new men’s basketball coach at Lorain County Community College, actually said this: “Year one, our goal is very simple and that’s to win the national championship.”
Hold on. He wasn’t joking.
“This is sort of a crazy thing to say,” Cruz said, “but I honestly believe if we continue to work like we’ve been working, we have a chance to be one of the last teams standing.”
Cruz, who was in the last class to graduate from old Lorain Catholic (2004), is completely serious, just as the college is serious about re-establishing athletics as a focus of student life.
According to assistant athletic director Tom Szabo, a former two-sport star at Elyria and Ohio State, LCCC wants to improve the athletic programs it sanctions for several reasons.
Among them: as a way to retain students who play sports, to increase the number of athletes who would like to play, and to enhance the school’s visibility and reputation.
This attitude is now at work, some 30 years after the college divested itself of varsity athletics in the early 1980s.
Part of the effort to bring sports back was to hire Cruz, who spent the past two seasons as a men’s basketball assistant at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. At Charlotte, he was on the staff of Alan Major, a former Thad Matta assistant at Xavier and Ohio State.
The college has also hired a new volleyball coach and elevated its cross country program to varsity status.
The volleyball coach is Marc Pogachar, who is well known in the area after coaching for 10 years at several area schools, including Brookside and Avon, and at the Junior Olympic level.
“Athletics and academics go hand-in-hand,” Pogachar said. “It’s kind of trite, ‘sound body, sound mind,’ but I think the point is being a part of something. I think for a female athlete in the world today, being part of something is a very good thing. Athletics for women, especially at our institution, are a terrific opportunity to do that.”
The cross country program will include men’s and women’s teams coached by Jim Powers. He coached the school’s cross country club teams the past two years and also heads its coed club tennis program.
“We’re a small team,” Powers said. “We have six men and five women right now. We have (athletes) here. It’s just a matter of letting them know there is a team. We run against great competition, they can travel, they can go to the national championships. It’s just getting the word out.”
So, from zero varsity sports at one point, LCCC now supports eight varsity teams — four men’s and four women’s — in seven sports competing in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III.
The sports are men’s and women’s basketball, fastpitch softball, baseball, volleyball, men’s golf and cross country. Szabo said cross country is considered one sport that embraces both men’s and women’s teams, hence seven, and not eight, sports.
“We also offer club sports,” Szabo said. “We have tennis and men’s and women’s soccer and I wouldn’t be surprised if soccer becomes a varsity sport, although right now, with the economic times, we’re not adding anything. We just have to sit tight. Our emphasis right now is to enhance what we’ve built.”
Why the change in attitude? The school was having trouble retaining athletes, Szabo said, so he and others conferred with college president Roy Church.
“We decided to try to put some plans in place,” Szabo said. “We did some investigating and some research about what other schools were doing. We looked at some of the schools around us — Cleveland State, the University of Akron, Baldwin-Wallace — saw what they were doing and how they were set up.
“So we decided to put together a ‘student success’ component for athletics and what that means simply is that we’re going to guide (athletes) from the minute they register, guide them with their scheduling and actually monitor their academic performance more closely.
“The long and short of it is a lot of our young men and women coming out of high school aren’t necessarily ready for college,” Szabo said. “We’re absolutely an academic institution and we have received very good reviews as far as our performance as an institution is concerned, and we’re very proud of that.”
To help athletes with their course work, the school has, among other things, appointed an athletics academic adviser — former Elyria schools administrator Ken Oblak — and established twice-a-week (for now) study tables which are mandatory for athletes who don’t carry at least a 3.0 grade-point average.
The study tables, which are monitored by varsity coaches on a rotating basis, are expected eventually to meet more often.
With a new emphasis on improving athletics, recruiting is now an issue. As a Division III member of the NJCAA, the college cannot offer athletic scholarships, and that doesn’t help a school’s recruiting efforts. But there are ways athletes can get financial help.
Szabo said students with strong academic credentials might qualify for academic scholarships and they can apply for aid through a variety of programs. As far as recruiting is concerned, Cruz likes strong academic credentials.
“The thing is, we don’t just want talent, we want high-character talent,” he said. “You want kids who want to do the right thing in the classroom and in the community and who are also going to be incredibly coachable on the court. I think we have that. We have a long way to go, but we have a lot of potential.”
The basketball coaching staff, by the way, consists entirely of former Lorain Catholic players. Cruz’s assistants are Brandon Neal, who also starred in soccer at LC, and Tim Kiedrowski.
Pogachar said volleyball recruiting has been tough because he was hired after the end of last school year. Had he been hired earlier, he said, he would have had phone and email access to potential players already on campus.
“So throughout the summer, I spent my time hanging around beach volleyball tournaments,” he said. “And I called people who had played for me in JO (Junior Olympics) leagues and parents and anyone I knew who might have a player coming to Lorain County. It paid off. Last year, they had eight players. This year, we have 16.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.