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NMJC sports achieves national honors

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NMJC sports achieve national honors

PETER STEIN/NEWS-SUN
New Mexico Junior College has sports programs that are highly competitive, most that are championship caliber.

The Thunderbird programs that seem to stand out are the men’s and women’s cross country and men’s and women’s track & field teams. They are national heavyweights every year.

And both have been recognized for a standout 2023-24 season – the NMJC men were recently named the National Junior College Athletic Association Men’s Program of the Year; the NMJC women were honored as NJCAA Women’s Program of the Year.

For NMJC athletic director Deron Clark, it’s a proud time. But he knows that the work of many people was responsible for the recognition.

“I don’t think enough can be said about two groups of people,” Clark said. “No. 1, the coaches who do a great job of bringing in student-athletes, and how they give us a great opportunity to compete at the national level. And No. 2, the athletes who perform and meet the expectations; You can recruit and recruit, but to find kids who meet the expectations can be challenging. When they do, they deserve the recognition.”

The NMJC women’s program earned its honor by winning a repeat national title in outdoor track, finishing second nationally in cross-country, and placing third at the indoor track national championships.

The NMJC men received their honor by taking second at the national indoor and outdoor track & field championships, and placing fourth nationally in cross-country.

Both Thunderbird teams fared well in the national half-marathon too. The NMJC men took first place nationally, the women placed third.

So overall, the T-birds excelled nationally at cross-country, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field, and the half-marathon.

“Being successful in all four of them is where we earned our wings for being program of the year,” Clark said.

Excelling in the half-marathon is especially impressive because it comes right on the heels of the cross-country national championships.

“In cross-country,” Clark said, “those kids compete on a Saturday for the championship. They take Sunday and Monday off, and then Tuesday morning they get up and run 13-1/2 miles.”

And the men’s team excelled despite that quick pivot.

“We turned right around and ended up winning (the half marathon),” Clark said. “For the men, it’s depth, it’s intensity, to compete at a high level all the time.”

Clark says that more and more of the cross-country athletes are taking part in the half-marathon. It helps that they hold the half-marathon at the same location now.

“They do that because it’s essentially the same athletes,” Clark said. “This year they traveled to Alabama, and it just doesn’t make any sense for these kids to compete in the cross-country championships and then load up and head to another location for the half marathon. So it has exploded as a participant event, and the quality has increased across the country. It’s been really good. It’s cheaper on the schools and easier on the kids. That’s a lot of headache to have kids get to a destination and then reload and go do that again.”

After the half-marathon, the athletes have to re-focus on indoor track, which has a different feel to it. And yet the NMJC men and women earned second and third place, respectively.

“Indoor track is so much about staying healthy,” Clark said. “Those kids could have injuries in a variety of ways, and to show off and compete that way at a national event is a really big deal. I’m really proud that they were able to establish that consistency and be that successful.

“We get into indoor track,” Clark continued, “and it’s a blend of sprinting and field events and the distance events and transitioning from running cross country where you’re running three and half miles to five miles, and then you’ve got to tone it down to where you’re an 800 runner and a mile runner. And you have to adapt in a short period of time. We finish cross-country on Nov. 15 and we’re right back on the track in January. So they’ve got to turn it around in essentially seven or eight weeks.”

And the athletes don’t just excel on the tracks throughout the country.

“They’re what they are, they’re just elite student-athletes,” Clark said. “Both the men and the women had team GPAs over 3.1.”
The recognition for NMJC athletics didn’t end there. Daktronics, a company that makes and sells scoreboards and video systems, sponsors a Daktronics Cup for the National Association of Two-Year Athletic Administrators.

“They award the programs that have the most success, and they earn points based on that success,” Clark explained. “But you can only earn points if your teams go to the national tournament.”

Eight of 10 NMJC teams made it to national tournaments this year, with three – the men’s half marathon team, the women’s track & field team, and the men’s golf team – winning national championships.

The Thunderbirds finished third in the Daktronics Cup numbers, behind first-place Iowa Western and second-place Barton Community College.

“That’s a feather in our cap,” Clark said, “because Iowa Western has 25 sports on their campus, so does Barton. And we have 10. And it’s not just the people that compete in the NJCAA; this includes the people that compete in California and the schools that compete in the Northwest Conference.”
California has 215 schools, the Northwest Conference 34, and there are 537 others competing in the NJCAA.

“So we were No. 3,” Clark said, “out of about 800.”

Making it a very rewarding 2023-24 school year.

“Yeah, it’s been a great year,” Clark said. “A great year.”

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