By Ken Gerlinger
The roar of the crowd echoing through the trees of Augusta, Ga., is nothing new. Sports fans the world over have come to expect that singular phenomenon each April amid the Georgia pines, but to hear those same roars on an early Saturday morning in November was quite out of the ordinary.
The unknowing spectator who followed the sound of the cheers may have been shocked to see not golfers but…cross country runners?
With hundreds of fans lining the course that Saturday morning (including many of the men’s and women’s soccer players who played the night before and would play again the next day), Peach Belt Conference Commissioner David Brunk had to nearly shout to be heard. “You see? This is what it was all about!”
‘This’ was the 2010 Peach Belt Conference Fall Festival, the first multisports championship in league history. Months of work culminated in the event Nov. 5-7 at Blanchard Woods Park in Evans, Ga., as the men’s and women’s soccer championships and men’s and women’s cross country championships were held at the same facility on the same weekend.
“I don’t know why, I just felt faster today,” said Georgia College’s Daniel Horseman after the 2010 Peach Belt Conference cross country championships. “Something about having all these people here really turned on the adrenaline.”
“Our team was completely surprised by it,” remarked Columbus State Athletics Director Jay Sparks. “They were all talking about how much energy it gave them.”
The festival began that Friday with a banquet that brought together all 420 student-athletes in the largest PBC gathering ever. Only a handful of facilities in the Augusta area were big enough to accommodate the event, and Warren Baptist Church’s Simmons Hall was crammed as eight soccer teams and 19 cross country teams gathered. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey W. Foley gave the keynote address, emphasizing the role of teamwork in sports and life.
With that message in their heads, the soccer teams took to the upper fields of Blanchard Woods that night. Hundreds of fans came with them, more than 300 on each of the two fields that hosted games simultaneously. Many of the fans were low-body-fat cross country runners who warmed themselves on a cold night in the PBC blankets given to each student-athlete as a participant gift.
Less than 10 hours later, the roles of spectator and participant were reversed as the cross country teams took to the hilly course. The throng of fans was unprecedented, with people lining the course for hundreds of yards at a stretch and willing their runners on. Columbus State’s Meshack Koyiaki smashed the Blanchard Woods 8k course record for the men while Brittney Skiles did the same on the women’s 6k course.
But there were more than fans at Blanchard Woods that morning as part of the PBC’s continuing commitment to community-engagement projects. The conference hosted both a 5k/1k Fun Run and its annual Breakfast with the Champions soccer clinic.
Sunday’s soccer championships moved down the hill into the Blanchard Woods Stadium, which will be the site of the 2012 and 2013 Division II soccer championships. With a live video webcast covering the action for the first time, Columbus State won the women’s title while Montevallo captured the men’s. Many of the cross country teams stayed an extra night to root for their soccer programs.
“The championship experience is something we have always wanted to enhance for our student-athletes,” said Brunk. “That’s how I would judge the success or failure of this festival: by how they reacted to it. And from what I’ve seen and heard from our student-athletes, it has been a tremendous success.”
The PBC Fall Festival was inspired by the NCAA, which began holding multisport championship events in 2004. In fact, the upcoming NCAA Division II National Championship Festival in Louisville, Ky., made the PBC event a possibility because the cross country and soccer schedules were brought into a rare alignment that allowed for both conference championships on the same weekend without altering the postseason schedule for either sport.
“The NCAA definitely established the blueprint for how to run a successful festival,” said Brunk. “I’m just so pleased that we were able to bring that kind of experience to a large number of our student-athletes.”
Ken Gerlinger is assistant director for communications of the Peach Belt Conference.