Track and field enters GAC championship picture

Ever changing to meet the needs of its member schools, the Great American Conference has added men’s and women’s track and field this spring. Unfortunately, although steeped in the sport’s rich history, the University of Arkansas at Monticello will not get in on the ground floor, it seems.

In fact, only five GAC schools—East Central, Harding, Oklahoma Baptist, Southern Arkansas and Southern Nazarene universities—currently have track and field squads. Thus, the league office announced Monday the addition of two affiliate members—Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State (Okla.) universities, giving the conference seven schools with which to stage its inaugural championships.   

“We are excited to add Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State, their student-athletes, coaches, administrators and fans into the Great American Conference for track and field,” GAC Commissioner Will Prewitt said after the announcement, made with unanimous support of league presidents. “The addition of two more programs greatly enhances our track and field championship and we’re glad to offer the championship opportunity for our neighbors at Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State. This relationship will be a winner for all parties involved.”

As affiliate members, student-athletes from Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State will have full eligibility to win team and individual awards at the conference meet. Additionally, both schools can participate and vote at track and field coaches’ meetings.

“The Rogers State University athletic department is excited and honored to join the Great American Conference as an affiliate member in men’s and women’s track and field,” said Rogers State Director of Athletics Ryan Erwin. “I want to express my appreciation to Commissioner Will Prewitt for his guidance through the process and support of our request for affiliate membership. We also are thankful for the support provided by all the GAC institutions, their presidents, and ADs, which grants a great opportunity for our student-athletes.”

Oklahoma Christian Athletic Director Curtis Janz added: “We appreciate the Great American Conference allowing us to become an affiliate member for track and field. We will continue with our membership in the Heartland Conference in all our other sports and we enjoy the rivalries we’re building in that league. But now our track and field teams will have a better opportunity to compete at the Division II level and qualify for postseason events, too.”

The addition of track and field is an idea which has been discussed at UAM, Director of Athletics Chris Ratcliff said, but no movement is foreseen in the near future.

“While we are always looking at ways to improve our athletic department and our footprint in the region,” Ratcliff said, “at this time, we are just working on strengthening our current 11 sports (football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s cross country, and cheerleading).”

UAM made its mark in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference in track and field, primarily led by the late great Harry Denson, who coached the UAM track and cross country teams from 1966 until his retirement in 1988.

He produced 16 All-Americans and the Boll Weevils’ only national champions—Greg Culp in the decathlon and Fuller Cherry in the 60-yard indoor hurdles.

Three of Denson’s athletes, long jumper Anthony Beal, shot putter Milton Williams and distance runner Damon Martin, competed in the Olympic Trials. Add athletes the caliber of four-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American Roger Franklin, a sprinter; and Jeff Pope, a two-time NAIA All-American in the marathon and a four-time AIC individual champion (three times at 10,000 meters and once at 5,000 meters), and fans can see UAM has a storied past in the sport.

In all, 14 track and field All-Americans’ pictures hang on the wall at Steelman Field House.

Culp, Cherry, Beal, Williams, Martin, Franklin and Pope—as well as Denson—are members of the UAM Sports Hall of Fame and Denson was inducted in the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003. Martin joined him there in 2007 and Culp and Williams were inducted in 2013. Several former members of Weevil track and field teams are still in the Monticello area.

Despite the absence of UAM track and field athletes, the first GAC Championships—to be staged at Oklahoma Baptist in Shawnee, Okla. May 4-6—promises to be exciting. Harding, a perennial powerhouse in NCAA Division II track and field, which up until this point has competed as affiliate members of the Lone Star Conference, would have to be the odds-on early favorite to capture the first GAC track and field titles.

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