By Todd Vinyard
FULTON Two of the fastest growing sports in the United States are now part of Itawamba Community College’s athletic program.
School officials announced plans Tuesday for men’s soccer along with women’s and men’s cross country. Cross country will become a certified sport immediately, while soccer may compete as either a club sport or compete on the junior college Division III level.
“We feel like these sports are on the cutting edge of athletics,” Itawamba Community College Athletic Director Roy Cresap said. “The thing we are very excited about is that we have brought two people in to coach these programs that have solid backgrounds in the sports.”
Donnie Lesley, 25, will serve as soccer coach, while David Wheeler, 34, has been named cross country coach. Both coaches are beginning to recruit and plan now for the fall seasons.
Lesley still holds the record for most goals scored at Tupelo High School. After Tupelo, Lesley played two years of soccer at Millsaps.
“I am excited about building a program and giving some area players a place to go to compete and improve their skills,” said Lesley, a licensed soccer coach.
Another Tupelo High School product, Wheeler’s name is familiar to area runners. Besides writing a running column in the Daily Journal, Wheeler is the owner of The Second Wind in Tupelo.
Wheeler participated on track and cross country teams at Tupelo High, Itawamba, and Mississippi State. He was named Itawamba track MVP in 1981, and won several area road races in the middle and late 1980s.
“There is definitely potential here when you look at the number of good high school cross country programs in this area,” said Wheeler, who has worked as a volunteer coach for the Tupelo High School cross country team the last 10 years.
Neither sport will offer scholarships in the beginning, but Wheeler pointed out there is a variety of financial aid options open.
If the soccer team participates in Division III they will take part in the Mississippi regionals. One or two home games in Tupelo will be part of the 12-15 game schedule.
Being a certified sport means the cross country team can compete for state and national titles from the start.
Facilities are not a problem. There are enough areas in Fulton suitable for cross country training, and one of the football practice fields will be enlarged for soccer.
Cresap said there may be some growing pains, but he expects both programs to become competitive.
“This is something we want to do the right way, and most important at the end of every year it should be something the kids enjoyed participating in,” Cresap said.