December 25, 2017 7:35:24 PM
A "complete buy-in" from the coaches, community, and region made the first part of the 2017-18 school year a rousing success for Jason Trufant.
As 2017 turns to a new year, Trufant believes the second half of the first year of the Mississippi University for Women's return to athletics will be even more successful.
That's because Trufant, The W's director of athletics, feels he and his staff learned valuable lessons after men's soccer, volleyball, and women's cross country kicked off the school's first intercollegiate athletics season since 2002, when then-President Claudia Limbert moved to discontinue athletics after a November tornado destroyed the school's gymnasium. At the time, The W was a member of the Gulf South Conference and offered sports that included basketball, softball, volleyball, track and field, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, and badminton.
"The anticipation wasn't half as good as what it turned out to be," Trufant said. "We didn't expect to win a game. We didn't expect to have the roster numbers that we had. ... Schedules were full. Games were played. Facilities have been upgrade, so on the first fall you look back and say, 'Wow, we have launched.' Now, we are in the mode of what can we do better?"
On Jan. 10, 2018, The W's baseball and softball teams will begin practice for their seasons, which will start in February. Earlier this month, The W hired Gray Massey as its new women's soccer coach. A search for a men's golf coach is nearly complete, and the school also is working to find a coach for its men's and women's tennis programs. Those sports are slated to begin play in 2018-19. Morgan Turnipseed, who coached the women's cross country team, will coach the men's squad.
The W will move into 2018 with 110 student-athletes. Those numbers figure to grow significantly in the next two years as Trufant hopes to push The W closer to 15 intercollegiate sports. He said the school is examining adding men's and women's basketball and women's lacrosse in 2019-2020. Trufant said The W also has discussed the possibilities of adding track and field, sand volleyball, rugby, bowling, women's golf, swimming, and esports, which is a form of competition using video games.
"There are plenty of opportunities at this institution, not only academically but athletically," Trufant said. "We just need to dive into them and see which ones work. We know those 12 or 13 work. What works beyond that is our next goal. We are having daily conversations."
Trufant said The W isn't going to start a football program.
As the athletic department at The W grows, Trufant hopes to build on the success the men's soccer, volleyball, and cross country teams had this year. He said the men's soccer team attracted great crowds for its home matches at the downtown Columbus Soccer Complex, as did the volleyball team for its home matches at Pohl Gymnasium. He feels the softball team, which will play its home games at the renovated Don Usher Softball Field on 15th Street South, adjacent to The W's main campus, and the baseball team, which will play its home games at Columbus High School, will raise the school's profile and increase awareness about the return of athletics.
The softball team will play on a new artificial surface, which was recently completed. Trufant said the rest of the renovations to the complex will be completed by the end of January. He also said the press box and concession stand will be renovated.
"It's a good place. It just needed some love, and we gave it the attention it needed," Trufant said. "I think there will be two or three more years of work put into that to get it up to a higher standard not only for us to play, but we can bring in high school championships and junior college championships where it is lights, turf, what else do you have to worry about?"
Trufant said work to install additional seating, to add to the parking for the complex, to build a batting cage, and to expand the bathroom area are to come for the facility. Trufant said The W will continue to use the natural surface field across the street from the Don Usher Softball Field. He said having two fields will increase the school's chances of playing host to tournaments for multiple teams.
The W also signed a five-year agreement with Columbus High to improve that school's baseball facility. Work has been done to install a new fence, to add bullpens, and to enhance the dugouts.
"You couldn't ask for anything better," Trufant said. "We knew we needed a place to play and we knew we could help. It was just trying to find the right partner, whether it was the city or private. It didn't matter.
"It is exciting to see our hard work is benefiting somebody else as well, and I think that is only going to help their program."
Trufant said "the ultimate goal" is to get soccer and baseball on campus. He said sites have been picked out for both sports, but he added that those plans are "long term," but "not too long" because he said he "tends not to move slow."
"We have talked about design concepts and making sure we can do things certain ways, plus adding that element back to the campus so the entire community can join in," Trufant said. "It is important to me. I think t only build the sense around athletics that we want to have here."
Trufant said The W will use Lion Hills Center and Golf Course in Columbus. He said The W is in the process of finalizing a contract with a new golf coach, which he expects at the start of 2018. After a coach is hired, Trufant said all of the arrangements for the golf program will be finalized. He said the tennis teams will use the Garrett Tennis Courts on campus.
All of the plans excite Trufant, who was hired a year before the start of the athletic program. He said being in Columbus allowed him to see what The was like without athletics. With sports, Trufant said The W has a different "vibe" and "buzz" on campus. Trufant also is seeing more apparel with The W's logo, which is an owl. He hopes to see more student-athletes involved in community service projects and efforts to increase The W's role in the community and to get more people in the area interested in the Owls.
"I think the culture of the campus changed in a positive way," Trufant said. "There is more energy. We want to build on that."
The W is a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). In September, it started its exploratory process to gain status as a Division III member of the NCAA.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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