Although the Milligan College track and field team is going through one of those dreaded rebuilding years, head coach Chris Layne can take some solace in the company they’re keeping.
“It’s one of those years,” Milligan head coach Chris Layne said. “I feel like Kentucky right now.”
The Buffs don’t have a single athlete qualified for the upcoming NAIA Indoor National Championships at this point, although there is still one meet to go.
As Layne pointed out, even the defending NCAA basketball champions aren’t having a year up to their lofty standards. Taking a page from Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari, Layne has been busy hitting the recruiting trail.
“We’re getting restocked. Recruiting has been a big emphasis for us,” Layne said. “I’ve scanned a couple of websites and we’ve got one of the bigger recruiting classes across the state of Tennessee. Some of those kids we’re going to have to develop, but that’s where we’re putting a lot of emphasis this year.”
At the national signing day, the Buffs announced local products Ayden Farmer from Dobyns-Bennett, Peter Mermilliod from Daniel Boone, Chelsey Carpenter from Greeneville and Carly Owen from University High were among those joining a Buffalo program which has produced 14 national championship finishes in cross country and track and field since 2000.
Earlier this week, Milligan added Josh Mosteller, who finished runner-up in the mile at the North Carolina high school state indoor championships.
The Buffs’ previous success is a big selling point for the program, as well as Layne’s reputation for getting the most of out his athletes.
“I feel like 13 years now, kids have come into this program and developed,” he said. “Some have more than others, but we feel like we develop kids.”
Case in point, Natalia Rivas from University High, who has taken five minutes off her time in the 5,000. She qualified for the cross country nationals and he looks for her to also qualify for the outdoor nationals.
In the meantime, she’s one of a handful of Milligan athletes also looking to qualify for the indoor nationals.
Thrower Shaka Andrew has ranked in the top 10 in every meet this season, setting a new school record in the weight throw in the process.
There’s still hope for Kevin Mowatt, the Buffs’ standout in the sprints. The women’s side features Meagan Wright, a talented freshman thrower from South Carolina, and MacKenzie Patton, who was Milligan’s No. 1 runner during the cross country season. Layne pointed out how she’s shown great improvement, that no one knew who she was coming out of high school.
Still, there are other challenges including one that’s similar to the one-and-done mentality of Kentucky basketball. While Miligan track faces an entirely different set of circumstances, it’s still a challenge to keep athletes in the program for four years.
“One of the variables is the kids come in and they don’t have a lot of expectations to run at a smaller school,” Layne said. “They get into a high-end program and it’s sometimes shocking. They also start thinking about jobs, marriage, grad school or whatever, so it is sometimes tough to keep them on track. That’s a good thing when you look at the school as a whole because we’re getting the type of kids focused on their future.”
Still, it can be a dog-eat-dog world when it comes to recruiting and retaining athletes. Layne has to only look a couple of hours down the road to Knoxville to see how athletes have walked away from commitments in recent years.
“We have some protocol we’ve put into place the last few years even when we sign a kid, we keep recruiting them until they show up on campus,” Layne said. “I’ve learned this following Tennessee football and their recruiting process. It doesn’t stop until a kid gets on campus, and then the challenge is trying to keep them for four years, for the good of the entire program as well as the school.”
Layne also focuses on the program with the meets he chooses to participate in. While it might seem odd to to Middle Tennessee State on go back-to-back weekends, he explained the Buffs are always welcomed at one of Hall of Fame coach Dean Hayes’ meets.
“Obviously, we have a special relationship down there,” Layne said. “It’s where I graduated from and coach Hayes doesn’t let a lot of people into his home meets. We can beg our way into Clemson or Virginia Tech, and they really don’t care if we’re there or not, or we can go to Middle Tennessee and have a good opportunity to compete in a good Division 1 environment, what we need to get better. There is some good in familarity, and they have a fast track, a good place to jump, run and sprint.”
For the final regular-season meet, the Buffs will race at Winston-Salem at a new facility which Layne believes will provide similar competition to the national championships.
After that, the NAIA Indoor Track and Field National Championships are scheduled for Feb. 28-30 at Geneva, Ohio. After a decade of hosting the championships in Johnson City, it’s a nice change of pace for the Buffs to go on the road.
“I have always enjoyed traveling to a national championship because you’re with your very serious kids and this is what you work for as a coach to go to an environment like this,” Layne said. “Those are some of my favorite times to be on the road with those kids traveling to the national championships. That part of it is cool, because when we were doing the meet here, we didn’t have the time to stop and enjoy it like we do on the road.”
The Milligan College athletic department is set to host a “Meet the Buffaloes” event on Sunday at the Mall of Johnson City.
The event is slated to begin at 1 p.m., and will run through 6 p.m. It will be held in the mall concourse outside of Dick’s Sporting Goods. There will be prizes and giveaways as well as appearances by Milligan’s mascot, Brutus the Buffalo.
Coaches and players from the baseball, softball, golf, tennis, and track and field teams will be on hand to interact with fans.
Since 2000, the Milligan athletic department has won the Duard Walker Trophy, given to the Appalachian Athletic Conference’s best all-around athletic department, eight times. Over the past 10 years, Milligan has made 60 national tournament appearances and won 47 AAC regular season and tournament championships.