In a sports world of delayed games and seasons, one of the few sports going on at the junior college level is cross country.
The NJCAA Division I, II and III championships are slated for November 14 in Fort Dodge, Iowa and a Missouri team will be looking to defend its title.
Mineral Area College, in Park Hills, won the Division III title last year in only the second year as a program and guiding that program is Steve Davis.
If the name seems familiar for those in Missouri high school cross country circles, it should, as Davis led both Viburnum and Potosi to state championships.
Davis built a state power at Potosi and is looking to do the same thing for the Cardinals.
After retiring from Potosi in 2015, he still stuck around the sport, going to cross country and track and field meets.
After the 2017 MSHSAA cross country championship, he had an idea: try to get Mineral Area College to add the sport.
He started talking with coaches from high schools like Farmington, Potosi, North County and Ste. Genevieve to see what each thought. Davis thought the junior college could get students who could use their A+ Plus money to pay for school and continue a sport they might not otherwise have done in a college setting.
Later that month, he sent an email to Dr. Steven Kurtz, who was president at Mineral Area College at the time. Davis kept the email short but the gist was adding a program would be a good draw for students from the area.
He presented budget numbers, travel costs and how the program would do better being at the D-III level instead of D-I, meaning not involving athletic scholarships. The other programs at MAC are at the NJCAA D-I level, which offers tuition, fees, books, housing and meals. About two dozen coaches sent letters to Kurtz in support of Davis' idea.
Months went by and no reply. Davis started to think the effort would fall short.
In February 2018, he got an email from Kurtz, asking to talk. It turns out that Kurtz was a cross country runner himself and competed at Arizona.
In the spring of 2018, the junior college in Parks Hills announced they would be adding men's and women's cross country and men's and women's track and field programs.
Davis became an obvious choice to run both programs given his background -- he is a member of the Missouri Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He guided Viburnum to a boys Class 1A-2A state title in 1986, the school's first-ever state title. Davis taught at the school from 1985 to 1990 before moving to Potosi. He stayed there for a quarter of a century
He guided the Trojans to seven state titles in cross country, two more in track and field and 15 total state trophies in his tenure. Between the two sports, he guided 21 state champions and four relay teams that won state crowns.
The 2006 Potosi boys cross country scored 16 points in the Class 3 state title -- still the state record for the lowest score. That team competed at the Nike National Cross Country meet, finishing eighth.
Davis had a short window once the decision was made to start cross country in the fall of 2018 and he got eight runners to commit to the program. Davis sent messages to former coaching colleagues and used Twitter and Facebook to get the word out about the program. The school is less than 10 miles from Farmington, while Potosi and Ste. Genevieve isn't that far either.
"It worked out being a Division III program," Davis said. "We provide an opportunity. We will take any and all that want to run at that level."
Filling up the men's roster has been easier than the women's roster thus far for Davis. This year's roster features runners from Windsor, Herculaneum, DeSoto, Poplar Bluff, Clopton, Alton, East Carter, Ava, West County, Fredericktown, College Heights Christian, Saint Paul Lutheran, North County, Notre Dame Cape Girardeau, Festus and Potosi -- a wide swath of runners from most parts of the state.
Prior to last season, Davis started to think his team might have a chance to do something special -- qualify for the NJCAA Division III National Championship.
The meet was going to be held in Westfield, Massachusetts, with Harper College of Palatine, Illinois having won the previous eight D-III national titles.
Mineral Area won the Region XVI championship over St. Charles Community College prior to nationals which earned them the first trip to the national finals.
The Cardinals had three runners in the top eight and five in the top 30 to accumulate 54 points -- winning the D-III title by 25 points. Donovan Denslow (Clopton) was third, Wyatt Elliott (East Carter) took fourth and Jacob Arnold (Herculaneum) took ninth to earn All-American honors. Sam Toppins (Fredericktown) finished 22nd and Dylan Cisne (Poplar Bluff) was 27th.
Two runners on the women's side also made nationals and placed high. Hailey Cortez (Saint Paul Lutheran) was 18th -- missing All-American honors by three spots -- and Nani Brewington (East Carter) took 30th.
The college paid for the flight out to New York and the eight runners on the men's team and Davis received a national championship ring.
"That is something they won't forget," Davis said. "And it means a lot to me. We got the program to the national meet in our second year of competition and doing that was pretty exciting."
It was the first-ever championship of any kind for the Mineral Area College athletic programs.
Davis had a little wrench thrown into recruiting this spring with the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning no track season and recruiting turned from on-campus visits and trips to state meets to providing virtual tours of the campus and dorm rooms for student-athletes from places like Kennett and Brentwood.
The third season for cross country started on Sept. 9, the Cardinals hosted St. Charles Community College in a dual and had the No. 1-5 runners in the meet.
At the Hillsboro Invitational, the men's team won and last week, the team finished in fourth place at the Olivet Nazarene Tiger Invitational in Bourbannais, Illinois. The three teams that finished ahead of the Cardinals were all four-year colleges.
Denslow took eighth place overall and his time of 16:11 was the fastest among the junior college runners. He was named the NJCAA National Athlete of the Week on Tuesday, Sept. 29 for his achievement.
This is the kind of success Davis hoped for coming into season No. 3, even if he wasn't sure when the season would actually begin.
"We want to grow in the third year of the program," he said. "Each first title is special to you. You think you got one, I can take it easy and coast a little bit. As we get closer to the season, you are hungry wanting to do it again. It is the competitive nature and the build up. We want to do it again."