Throughout Shorter’s transition into the NCAA from the NAIA, it is the arguably the track and field teams that have garnered the most national attention and success. Going through the transition can be difficult for athletes and coaches, especially in dealing with the inability to play for NCAA Division II championships for three years, but these teams turned the negatives into positives – and a few NAIA and NCCAA national titles long the way.
For Scott Byrd, the Director of Track and Field at Shorter, his teams’ successes can be attributed to several factors. There have been top-tier athletes on both sides who have recorded times compatible with major Division I schools. The teams have stayed dedicated through redshirts in order to have those who can be eligible once NCAA postseason competition arrives are eligible. Byrd has taken to some new recruiting tactics as well, looking for the kinds of athletes that have Division I talent but are looking for a situation like Shorter’s.
Since the start of the transition talk at Shorter, the men have won an indoor NAIA national title, two outdoor NAIA national titles, and an indoor and outdoor NCCAA national title.The women have two indoor championships in the NCCAA and one in outdoor. The men also became the first Shorter team to win a conference championship in an NCAA conference, winning this season’s Peach Belt Conference crown.
When the student-athletes are asked about why they came to Shorter and why they stayed throughout the transition process despite the temptation to transfer, they all have nearly identical answers. While missing out on a couple years of NAIA or NCAA postseason play was difficult, it was the atmosphere at Shorter that was so appealing. They say the team is incredibly close, more so than other schools they have seen, and they are attracted to the Christian setting and atmosphere of the university.
All but one athlete to come through the program since the start of the have stayed and graduated or are on track to. The one who did not -- Paul Chelimo -- transferred to Division I UNC-Greensboro and became a national runner-up in the 5,000 meters for two consecutive years and a first-team All-American.
The rest stayed in Rome, Ga., despite other offers. Sprinter Randall Dameron had an opportunity to go to national track and field powerhouse Texas A&M.
“I told him, I love you to death, but I’ll sign this release in a second,” Byrd said. “He came back the next day and said ‘I don’t want to go there.’
“A lot of those guys could have gone somewhere, and they didn’t, and that’s a credit to them.”
Kirk Wilson is another that could have gone somewhere to compete in NCAA postseason. He is currently ranked ninth in the nation, across all NCAA divisions, with his time of 20.49 in the 200 meters. Wilson is a senior, so he will not have the chance to run in an NCAA postseason outside of this season’s Peach Belt Conference championship, which Shorter was eligible for because track and field is a new sport to the conference.
“I did have thoughts about [transferring],” Wilson said, "but I’ve had great relationships with the coaches and my track teammates. Overall, I thought about it and I wanted to stay here at Shorter.”The underclassmen on the team admire the seniors’ persistence to stay at Shorter to be a part of establishing something that could be bigger than winning a championship.
“Our seniors this year were really good,” said sophomore Destiny Jenkins, who transferred from Division I Kennesaw State to Shorter. “It’s kind of sad that they won’t be able to compete in the NCAA, but it’s awesome that they were here and able to raise the bar for us. Us going into the NCAA, it will help a lot because they were here. I’m definitely grateful to all of them sacrificing and raising the bar for all of us.”
The upperclassmen may not have had a choice when it came to the transition, but the younger members of the team still made the choice to attend Shorter, for those team chemistry and school atmosphere reasons. They knew they might have to redshirt for a season but with the end point in mind, it was worth it for them. Now, as long as the NCAA approves official membership this summer, the wait will be over.
“Once I saw the program and I began to look into it and I saw that they were actually a pretty good program, this was definitely something I could see myself being a part of,” rising senior Ayana Walker said. “If this is one of the sacrifices I have to make to be a part of it, then it’s worth it.”
When it came to recruiting, it would be tough the first couple years when with no chance at NCAA postseason competition, but Byrd and his staff found ways to find talented athletes who wanted to come to Shorter.
“I’m not going to get the same person that Auburn gets,” Byrd said. “So we have to expand our abilities to go out and get people – what we try to do is, we try to find the same individuals, or same talent level, as say maybe a DI school. We don’t always do that, we have to develop more, but we’ll try to do that. We feel like that gives us an opportunity to compete for a national championship at DII.”
Six-foot-5 sprinter Gregory Roachford Jr., was homeschooled, so it was difficult for him to get recruited by schools. But Shorter found him. Byrd also made a trip to Kenya last November to recruit. According to Byrd, since so many people pay attention to the Kenyan distance runners, sometimes very talented sprinters can be overlooked.
“There are runners over that that you never hear about, that if they were over here in the U.S., they would be competing at the highest level,” Byrd said. “We’re trying to find the same talent level as a DI school. Wherever that search carries us, we’re going to go. That’s one recruiting thing that we’ve done that we’ve learned has helped us.”
An NAIA and NCCAA national coach of the year, Byrd’s squads have become the most decorated at Shorter. When the transition into Division II is complete, it seems that they are in good position to keep contending for national titles.