Track & Field Team Earns Second Place Finish for Men, Third for Women at National Championship
The past year brought its share of challenges for Howard Community College’s Track & Field team, but it made it that much sweeter when 13 men and four women qualified to attend the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III National Championship meet in May.
Changes and restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic meant stretches of limited or no practice times, delayed start dates for the season, and a limited number of competition opportunities, said Ivan Alvarado, head coach for the team.
“There was a stretch where we didn’t see the athletes for two months because of Covid,” he said. “Even with all of that, the team has been performing very well.”
At the national meet, the four women, Cassidy Bunyard, Veronica Jennings, Na'Shae Early, and Ifeoluwa Epebinuade, won six of the 21 events. On the men’s side, Darryl Jeffries won the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes for the men, as his teammates Christopher Evans, Oluwatomi Akinrelere, Andrew Bray and Daniel Oppong also scored points in the sprints. Grant Bunyard won both the Decathlon and Javelin events, while Jim Nwalal won the national title in the high jump and Dorian Coates won the national title in the triple jump. Stephen Barr, Nicholas Kent and John Bondje, helped earn the second place finish for the HCC Dragons as well.
Overall, the men finished as the national runner up, just 15 points shy of the national championship, and the women placed third.
Postseason awards for the 2021 NJCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field season were announced following the meet by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). Grant Bunyard was named National Men’s Field Athlete of the Year, while Early was named National Women’s Field Athlete of the Year.
That recognition follows earlier accolades for Jeffries and for siblings Cassidy and Grant Bunyard, who were each recognized during the season as USTFCCCA NJCAA Division III National Athletes of the Week.
The team’s performance speaks to its resilience in what can only be described as a difficult year, Alvarado said.
Even after the season did get rolling, there was a question as to whether a national championship opportunity would even be possible. The governing board of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) initially cancelled the championships, set to take place in New Jersey, then reinstated them, before finally making the decision to combine the Division I and Division III championships and moving HCC’s competition location from New Jersey to Texas.
That meant last-minute travel arrangements to fly to Texas, something HCC Athletic Director Erin Foley wholeheartedly supported.
“With the short notice, the plane flights were outrageous,” Alvarado said. “Just based on that, the trip almost didn’t happen, but the athletic director believes in the team and I’m really appreciative that she went to bat for us.”
For Jeffries, who is in his third and final year at HCC and plans to pursue a career in education with long-term plans to found a mentorship program, the opportunity to finally compete at the national championships after overcoming several challenges was extra special.
“I was really excited because ever since I came to HCC, I had always qualified for nationals and had one of the fastest times in our division, but my first year I was red shirted because of my grades so I couldn’t compete at nationals, and then my second year the pandemic hit, so I have been waiting to show everybody what I’ve got for a long time,” Jeffries said. “But good things come to those who wait, and the wait made it so much more sweet.”
Foley noted the track & field team and others lost out on opportunities like this last spring, as stay-at-home orders were in place near the start of the pandemic. Health and safety were paramount as athletics resumed this school year. At the same time, Foley said HCC wanted to offer these student athletes as many opportunities as it could.
“The college felt it was a good opportunity to send them to this track meet,” she said. “Not just because they missed out last year, but this is also great exposure for our athletes who are going on to the next step.”
“We recognize that we are just one stop on the student’s academic and athletic journey,” Foley continued. “These national meets are a great way to showcase their talents.”
That’s true for Cassidy Bunyard, who said she’s been running since she was 9 years old, and joined the Dragons in track & field at the start of her freshman year. She will graduate HCC this spring, going on to Azusa Pacific University in California where she will complete her undergraduate degree. She’s already been offered a spot there on the university’s track & field team.
“Being able to compete at nationals like this is honestly such an honor,” she said. “I’ve been working hard for almost two entire years, through all kinds of weather and attitudes, through holidays and vacations and birthdays, trying to manage my course load and my friends and my relationships all at the same time.
“So being able to finally put my training where my mouth has been and prove myself to everyone watching is the most gratifying thing I can think of.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by her brother, Grant Bunyard, who is also on the team. He’ll also graduate this spring with an associate degree in Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences. He’s headed to the University of Maryland next, where he hopes to walk on to the track team.
“National Championships is the culmination of months of training,” he said. “The whole season is preparation for, and leads up to the national championships. It is an incredible feeling to have many, many hours of hard work finally pay off.”
Reflecting after the meet concluded, Alvarado said he initially felt a little disappointed for the men, who were so close to a first place finish, but in the end feels it was a great result. He’s proud of the women, who he said scored extremely well, given their small numbers.
“I’m very proud, more so than anything, of how they handled themselves throughout the course of the season,” Alvarado said. “I hope it’s a big learning opportunity and confidence booster – they’re battle-tested now.”