For the first time in 15 years, the Southwest Minnesota State athletic department is expanding.
The school announced on Monday that it will reinstate men's and women's cross country, naming Nate Wolf the teams' new head coach in hopes of starting a team this fall. Before accepting the SMSU cross country position, Wolf was the head cross country and track and field coach at Division III Northwestern College in Iowa.
While the potential exists for SMSU to field a Division II track and field team in the future, the school decided to go with a more immediate plan to expand its athletic department.
"Ever since the conversation that came up in the fall in looking at a partnership in the track and field complex we're taking with the high school in partnering in, cross country is a natural fit with track and field," said SMSU Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski. "We have the opportunity right now to add men's and women's cross country, and Nate brings great experience in that area.
"In order to support enrollment, as well as continue to move in compliance with Title IX," Hmielewski added, "we felt the timing was good to reinstate the men's and women's cross country programs."
The Mustangs fielded a men's cross country team from 1968-90, while the women had two separate stretches with a cross country team (1979-84; 1986-90), but had trouble fielding a full team. Cross country is the first sport added for SMSU since women's golf was instituted in 1997.
"For me, the important thing is we get a good foundation, and that has to start by having good people be a part of the program," said Wolf, who spent one season as the Red Raiders' head cross country coach after seven years as an assistant.
In the past, the Mustangs had four women's cross country runners qualify for the NAIA national championships in Karen Evans (1982), Nancy Carrow (1982), Karla Kolln (1986) and Julie Bauer (1987, 88). Rick Lee (1973), Mike Harland (1977) and Harvey Reckard (1983) qualified for nationals, and Craig Olson won a conference championship for SMSU in 1985.
Wolf will hit the ground running, as the Mustangs hope to have a competitive cross country team ready for the fall season.
"... Going into the first year, we need to get the word out, first and foremost, that Southwest will have a cross country program," Wolf said. "It's going to be a busy start, whether it's starting this year or if we're recruiting for a year. The first season is going to be a lot of work."
Meanwhile, a few of the wrinkles still need to be ironed out before the Mustangs are back on the cross country path.
"We're in the planning stages of getting the program up and running," Hmielewski said. "I think there's lots of opportunities within Marshall and on campus to look at where our team would compete, but I'm going to assume for the first couple years of the program, we're going to compete on the road at meets that have already been set up in the NSIC and within the region."
But first, the goal was to get a coach who was willing to oversee a program's revival. And in Wolf, the Mustangs are hoping they have someone who can lay down a foundation.
"Nate, through our interview process, showed all those skills (to build a program), and we feel fortunate to get him to join us on our staff," Hmielewski said. "They will be great assets to Marshall, and specifically, the cross country, and potentially, the track and field communities."