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Local college cross country runners have nowhere to run
North Georgia cuts cross country, track and field due to finances
North Georgia College and State University cross country runners, from left, Clare Madrid, Candace Chumley and T. Jaye Hansen were all seniors on the team this season. The school disbanded the cross country and track and field programs due to finances. - photo by By Tom Reed

DAHLONEGA — Tom Williams wouldn’t be at fault for feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse right now.

Williams, the North Georgia College & State University coach of both the cross country and track and field programs, uprooted his family from Cobb County, where he retired as a high school coach, and relocated to Dahlonega last spring to take his new position. Then, last month, the bad news came: There would be no more of either sport next fall at NGCSU.

Williams learned of the plans to cut these two sports programs on Dec. 7 and immediately crafted a proposal to keep the programs from falling victim to budget cuts. That proposal was denied by the school’s president, Dr. David Potter, within a matter of days.

“It just isn’t right that they pulled the rug from under the program as quick as they did,” Williams said. “I feel like if they would allow for the program to exist under different circumstances, then it would be able to survive.”

The decision by North Georgia to cut the two sports was all about finances, athletic director Randy Dunn said. He says the school conducted an internal exercise during the fall to determine how best to trim 14 percent from the total budget.

In the athletic department, some programs were off limits. The Peach Belt Conference requires men’s and women’s basketball, and private donations have already been secured for a 550-seat baseball stadium, a 225-seat softball facility and a new location for a tennis center.

In 16 years as an athletic director at North Georgia, this is the first time Dunn’s been faced with having to ax a sport.

“Was cutting the cross country and track and field teams an easy decision? Absolutely not.” Dunn said. “I hated having to do it, and I know Dr. Potter hated having to do it. But we’re all in a position to have to make sacrifices.”

A big reason why, university relations director Kate Maine said, is that the school’s state funding has been reduced by approximately 20 percent. Some other cuts at the school included filling staff needs with part-time instructors, shrinking travel expenses, and postponing the initiation of a Master’s degree program in music.

“Cutting the cross country and track and field programs was not a single point of reduction,” Maine said. “It was an extremely difficult and heart-wrenching decision to cut these athletic programs.”

Still, athletes from the cross country program, including a large number who take part in the newly developed track and field team, felt blindsided when told that their programs would be eliminated. They said there was no word that such drastic steps were looming until Dunn delivered the news Jan. 5 during what the athletes expected to be the first meeting for the upcoming track season.

“We were all in shock to find out the programs had been cut,” said senior Candace Chumley, a member of both teams. “We didn’t get a chance to get to ask why our team was cut.

“It was not fair at all what was done.”

Dunn said the plan to cut cross country and track was finalized before fall exams. He wanted to break the news to the team as early as possible without causing a distraction during exams so those interested could transfer and run at a new school in the fall.

Per NCAA rules, due to the elimination of the programs, the athletes will be allowed to run at a new school without having to sit out for a season.

“I wanted to be as upfront as possible about what was going on,” Dunn said. “We’re committed to helping those that want to continue to run and seek to move to a different school.”

In the aftermath, the athletes put together a proposal to reduce the budget for the teams by as much as 80 percent, according to their own estimates. At full strength, the programs cost the school approximately $60,000 per year, with the majority of funds reserved for coach salaries, travel, meet expenses, shoes, equipment and scholarship money.

Most of the 19 athletes on the cross country team received a partial athletic scholarship ranging from $250-$1,000 per semester.

In their proposal to keep the teams afloat, they volunteered to forgo that money. Williams was also willing to forgo his salary and reduce the number of meets the team attended, and parents planned to contribute financially to keep the teams running.

According to proposal submitted to Dunn, the school would still be responsible for covering insurance costs, trainers, shoes/equipment, and cell phone service for coaches’ phones.

“Their proposal was a very generous offer,” Dunn said. “But when we talked about it at length, it was not a sound model on which to base a program. “If we’re going to have a program, we want to do it right.”

The track team is still set to compete in the spring, but Williams no longer expects full participation.

“I’m afraid there will be a fallout,” Williams said.

With no track on campus and an unestablished program, the athletes’ focus is on salvaging the cross country program which began in the late 1980s.

They said one last-ditch effort rests with petitioning students, faculty and members of the community to show tangible evidence that the program is appreciated. They feel like they’ve earned good will in the school’s community with their athletic achievements and well-regarded academic standing. But that may not be enough.

“We’ve always loved to compete,” senior T. Jaye Hansen said. “It’s sad that future students won’t have the opportunity to compete at the same level.”

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