By Mike Deak
WINONA LAKE – It was a year Grace College has never experienced. And that doesn’t even include the COVID.
The 2020-21 school year was extraordinary for obvious reasons attached to the pandemic and its impact in adjustment, trust and faith. But getting past the uncontrollable, Grace College had a year for the record books, experiencing unprecedented success within its athletic department.
“First off, it’s great coaching and great student athletes who rose to the occasion and the moment and were successful,” said Grace College athletic director Chad Briscoe. “It’s not that we haven’t been there, we’ve been close a lot. It’s nice to just finish it this year.”
Briscoe, who himself was named the Crossroads League Athletic Director of the Year for the third time, oversaw quite a department this past year. Three of his coaches were tabbed Coach of the Year by the NCCAA. Jeff Raymond in men’s track, Arron Patrick in men’s soccer and Andy Lewis in men’s tennis, and all three have a very common bond amongst each other: they all guided national championship teams.
Men’s soccer took center stage in late November and put on a run for the ages at the NCCAA National Championships. Winning four matches in six days by a 13-2 aggregate score, the Lancers crushed its bitter arch rival Bethel, 4-0, in the national championship game, a fitting final for Patrick, a Bethel alum who played soccer for the Pilots.
In its run, Ulisses Miranda was named the NCCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and also earned Crossroads League Player of the Year honors.
The women’s soccer program weren’t far behind, and likely played a role in the men’s title after losing 2-1 in double overtime to Dallas Baptist in the NCCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship just moments before the men’s final. Patrick noted the heartbreak his club felt for the Lady Lancers likely fueled their passionate play in their championship match.
Another of the fall counterparts, Grace women’s golf, finished third at their NCCAA Nationals. The Lady Lancers won a national championship in 2019, starting this current run of championship fortunes.
The spring saw another pair of programs bring home the big blue banners to Winona Lake, and did it hours apart. Men’s track, which saw itself ranked nationally for the first time ever, won its first NCCAA national title in mid-May, standing tallest amongst 18 programs. Among the highlights for the Lancers was Issac Brown, who was named the NCCAA Outstanding Field Athlete of the Meet after winning the high jump and javelin competitions.
Earlier in the day, the stars had already aligned for men’s tennis, which shut out Judson, 4-0, to claim the NCCAA National Championship. After narrowly escaping Judson, 4-3, in the first round of the tournament, Grace shut out Oakland City and Dallas Baptist to reach the championship round and a rematch with the Eagles.
The Lancers, ranked for the first time ever during the regular season, finished its season 26-6 overall after picking up a win at the NAIA National Championships over Southeastern before falling to top-ranked Georgia Gwinnett.
Women’s track also had a big week at the NCCAA’s, taking second place overall in its best-ever finish in the national championships.
Men’s and women’s basketball ended their season with wins, the men finishing third as host of the NCCAA National Championships, beating Alice Lloyd 96-87 in the third-place contest. The Lady Lancers rallied from a tough first round loss in the NCCAAs to win its final two games, including a 97-50 dismantling of Ecclesia in the fifth-place game. Also toss in Grace cross country, which found itself ranked nationally on the women’s side for the first time ever and the men ranked for the first time since 2003.
Before women’s golf won its title in 2019, Grace had only won two titles in its history – 1992 NCCAA men’s basketball and 1995 NCCAA volleyball. The three in 2020-21 give Grace six overall, tripling its output in a fantastic run of events.
Among all of the success of the overall program, Grace earned its first-ever NCCAA Presidential Award, given to the program scoring the most cumulative points across all sports. Women’s soccer senior Sacia Hanson also earned the NCCAA’s highest honor, bringing home the Game Plan 4 Life award for excellence on and off the playing field.
“For me, it was being true to a process,” Briscoe said. “You can’t cut corners and expect to perform at a high level. One thing Dr. Katip, our president, has maintained in all of this is that we stay committed to Christian excellence in athletics. And that this takes time. You can’t just bring in a couple good recruits and expect to just win overnight. You have to be true to the process. Our coaches have done a wonderful job sticking to the process.
“You look at the last decade in certain sports, for example women’s soccer, we’ve been knocking on the door for a long time, been in national title games, Final Fours, and just haven’t been able to get through. For this past year, we had teams in place and they were able to finish the deal. And that’s exciting for us to see, certainly.”