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Bears program growing on the fly

Busy summer for Truett McConnell

POSTED: July 19, 2011 8:28 p.m.

Truett-McConnell’s basketball team just enjoyed a season in which two of its players, Roderick Bombard and Dedric Ware, were named to the All-South Region Team during NCCAA playoffs.

But that doesn’t begin to describe the Bears’ accomplishments in recent months.

The athletic program is moving forward on the fly. Their athletic director, Chris Eppling, was hired in March. During the coming academic year, the school will add wrestling and volleyball to its athletic program. In just the past few months, Eppling has hired coaches for each new sport, and those coaches are putting together programs.

All in a day’s work.

“You hit the ground running,” said Eppling, who was hired into the school as athletic director after an unrelated background of being a ministry worker for a church in Jacksonville, Fla. “Finding coaches (for the new athletic programs) was the biggest thing.”

For wrestling, they went the Hall-of-Fame route and hired Jim Bailey, a high school coaching legend with more than three decades of experience, mostly in Fayette County. This year, he was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

As a coach of a public high school program, he’s used to this time of year being all rest and relaxation.

This summer couldn’t be more opposite.

“It’s been pretty hectic,” Bailey said. “I’ve pretty much been running around the state trying to find kids (for the wrestling program).”

Not to mention, Bailey has yet to find a home near the Cleveland school and is still commuting from Fayette County.

Finding recruits is only part of the challenge. He also has to put together a schedule, perhaps the highest hurdle. By the time Bailey was hired in May, most college wrestling programs already had their schedules made.

“That’s what’s hard about it,” Bailey said. “They made theirs in the spring before I got hired. So now everyone wants us to travel to them.”

A road schedule seems to be the only way for both budding programs — wrestling and volleyball.

Kevia Elkins takes over the volleyball team, also hired in May. She’s been at Truett as a softball assistant coach the past four seasons, and is in the same boat as Bailey.

“I can find no one that has open dates,” Elkins said. “We have some scrimmages, a few matches, and maybe a few more in the works. Almost all of them will be away. But we’re in the mind-set that ‘If you just play us, we’ll come there.’”

Even if Truett were to find a program willing to travel to Cleveland, finding a venue to play in may be an issue still. On July 4, Truett’s gymnasium, built in 1969, was struck by lightning and suffered significant fire damage. The school is still working with insurance to determine the cost of damages. It’s not known if the gym will be ready in time for athletics, which begin in the fall with volleyball.

“We might have to find an alternate place to practice,” Elkins said.

Despite the short-term setback, Truett’s athletic program, along with its institution, is on the upswing. The Bears are looking into adding a football program, along with swimming and lacrosse. And since becoming a four-year institution four years ago, Truett’s student population has nearly doubled, with an estimated FTE count of 700, up from 400 three years ago. Truett is also working toward providing a Master’s program.

“The vision of president (Emir) Caner has put us in the position of being a school that knows what direction it’s going in,” Eppling said. “His vision is compelling.”


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