Miguel Lopez only needed one visit to Emmanuel College to know it was the school for him.
As an immigrant from Mexico to Gainesville, Lopez had spent the last several years honing his English while simultaneously balancing school, work and cross country at Gainesville High. The language and financial barriers were numerous and daunting, but Lopez maintained one lofty goal through it all.
“College was always one of my big things,” he said. “When I came from Mexico, I had to leave my family. I wanted to be the first one to go to college.”
Even still, Lopez approached his recruitment for collegiate cross country with apprehension, not daring to be too hopeful considering the obstacles still ahead of him.
When he was greeted by the entire Emmanuel cross country team with hugs and reassuring words on his first visit to the school’s Franklin Springs campus earlier this year, all his doubts started to fade away.
“They came up to me and were like ‘Hey, I know your situation. If you need help, we’re here for you,’” he said. “’English? We’re here for you. Homework? We’re here for you.’ That just made me feel good. It made me feel like I was already on my team.”
Lopez committed to run for Emmanuel soon after — thanks primarily to scholarships and grants procured for him by the school — becoming the third Gainesville cross country runner to sign on with the Lions in the past two years. He joins Alex Sosa and Mugisha Bienvenu as former Red Elephant runners who have found a new home in Franklin Springs.
“I think maybe what we’re doing here is bridging Emmanuel and Gainesville High School together, which is a good thing,” Gainesville cross country coach Richard Corbett said. “It’s a good relationship.”
The small, Christian school offers different advantages for each former Red Elephant athletes that now make up a good portion of its cross country team.
For Bienvenu — the first of the trio to commit early in last year’s track season — the potential of getting to run with teammates Sosa and Lopez, who were also drawing recruiting attention from the school at the time, was too much to pass up.
“I’ve been running with them since junior year at my high school,” he said. “It’s never really been easy to connect with other people, but I think my teammates, they made it so easy for me.”
That, combined with Emmanuel’s close proximity to Bienvenu’s family and church made joining the Lions an easy decision.
“I feel like this is the place where God guided me,” he said.
Once Bienvenu signed his letter of intent, he started recruiting Sosa.
The thought of continuing to run with Bienvenu was an intriguing one, but Sosa was wary of Emmanuel’s NAIA status. When the school joined the NCAA’s Division II, Sosa began seriously considering Franklin Springs as a future destination.
“I was just trying to be an NCAA athlete, just to have prestige of all the other runners,” he said. “You get to go to these big national meets. It’s the biggest achievement you could ever have. That’s what got me thinking about Emmanuel.”
Once the school’s coaches believed they had a chance to land Sosa, they began to keep up a constant stream of communication with him. He remembers representatives from the Lions calling him “at least once every two weeks.”
By the time the night before his signing day rolled around, Sosa had narrowed his college decision to a couple of options, with Emmanuel still a possible destination. A late-night call to Bienvenu ended up being the deciding factor.
“I woke (Bienvenu) up, and I said I really like running with you,” Sosa said. “I like the energy you bring. I think I’m going to decide to go to Emmanuel. He teared up and got really happy, and I was like I think I’m making the right decision of going to run with my teammate.”
A year later, Lopez joined the duo, signing on with one of the only schools that seems to have discovered Hall County for the hotbed of distance running talent it is. Former Johnson High runner Juan Soto, as well as Flowery Branch grad Ethan Hargrove also run for the Lions.
Franklin Springs has become the perfect place for the home grown athletes to hone their craft as runners.
“The coaching and the support they give is great,” Sosa said. “It’s a small town. All you know is running and studying, and that’s it. There’s no distractions.”
More important than that, Emmanuel College is a place Gainesville runners have come to know as home.
Bienvenu, a Congolese immigrant, was welcomed by the Red Elephants cross country with open arms, giving him an easier avenue to fit in at school. The same was true for Lopez. Now, both runners, along with Sosa, have found that familiar, confidence-boosting comfortability with the Lions of Emmanuel.
“Emmanuel College have been so accepting and listening to stories and learning to get new cultures, other people from different places,” Bienvenu said. “It’s been really a good connection of Gainesville and Emmanuel.”