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Roman ft Shot vs Johnson Univ.
Beacon men’s basketball team competes against Johnson University.

By Richard Burnett

As she raced across the finish line, runner Fiorella De La O heard the cheers erupt from her Beacon College cross-country teammates. In that moment, she felt both the thrill of achievement and joy of camaraderie that athletes can experience in college sports.

“Whenever I run, it makes me feel strong, free and confident within myself that I can really do this,” said De La O, 19, who won the women’s team most valuable player award this year in its debut season. “We’ve come together so much as a team and worked so hard to get to where we are now. It helps me know I have a place where I fit in, where I’m part of a pack.”

Such experiences are golden for Beacon’s nascent intercollegiate sports program. After years of supporting intramurals and informally organized club sports, Beacon is laying the foundation for competing at the intercollegiate level and elevating the role of sports on campus — from men’s and women’s basketball to cross country and golf.

“We’re inching our way to the next level and putting our toe in the door,” said Gabe Watson, director of fitness and athletics, who joined the college last August. “President Hagerty has the vision for where we’re going. He set the tone and the expectations. He knows the blueprint for getting it started. And we’ve received good feedback from him.”

Building from the ground up

Beacon Cross country team Starting a formal sports program from the ground up is a big move for any small college and it’s been the same for Beacon. Built around serving its unique population of students with learning disabilities, Beacon has a fitness center and some top-notch equipment, but lacks the sports scholarships, gyms, stadiums, and other sports facilities that many other colleges have.

Still, Watson and his assistant directors Kyle Close and Tony Wrice took the hurdles in stride and implemented a plan to field Beacon’s first intercollegiate teams this year. The result: Tryouts, player selections, and practices last fall, an inaugural season in the spring: four-game schedules for men’s and women’s basketball teams, and track-and-field meets for the cross-country team. Men’s and women’s golf teams in-training were also formed.

Like most expansion teams of any sort, Beacon’s teams endured a season of losing, which required the coaches to focus on character-building, competition, sportsmanship and school pride. There were some bright spots: The men’s basketball team playing inspired ball against a well-established Johnson University team; the growing skills of the women’s basketball team; the resilient spirit of the cross-country runners; and the golfers’ excitement at learning the game.

In mid-February, the cross-country team’s spirit was on display at Tallahassee Community College’s annual TCC Indoor/Outdoor Challenge meet:

“There, for the first time, we had a chance to show what we could do against some serious competition,” said Wrice, assistant director in charge of team athletics. “Everyone was into it. When our runners crossed the line, they were all shouting. Our folks didn’t win, but they showed they were capable. They competed at the intercollegiate level and achieved something they had never done before. They were part of something they’d remember for the rest of their lives.”

‘You made this happen’

For Helen Chinn, the excitement of the cross-country team’s first season still resonates in her heart. The 20-year-old 400-meter runner participated in the Tallahassee meet in February and an Embry Riddle University meet in April. In a matter of months, she cut eight seconds off her time, earning the team’s most improved player award for the season.

“It has meant so much to be a part of this team,” said Chinn, a business management major. “Not a lot of people know about Beacon, but we can change that by competing in these sports and showing we can do what other people can do. I want other girls and guys at Beacon to get involved with our teams so they can also build memories they’ll never forget.”

Beacon’s journey to intercollegiate sports has been especially meaningful for Kyle Close, who joined the staff in 2018 as assistant director in charge of intramurals. He has seen many student athletes “grow up before my eyes” at Beacon, enduring the pandemic lockdown, improving their skills through intramural competition and becoming part of the new intercollegiate program.

“I’m very, very proud of them and how far they’ve come,” said Close, who helped develop a highlight reel for the recent sports banquet. “I really wanted to document all the work they’ve done and tell them, ‘Hey, you made this happen. You started something and it’s going to stay here, even once you leave. You did the hard work. And others are going to benefit from it in the future.’ ”

From staff members to student athletes, all share a sense of mission and purpose as they have witnessed the beginning of Beacon’s new program. 

“I believe Beacon’s sports program is going to change a lot of other people’s lives,” said Wrice, the athletics coach. “It will show the college is a place where they can achieve their dreams and call home. Eventually, we’ll see students come who will say Beacon was their first choice — first because of the academics and first because of its strong athletics too.”

Cross-country star Fiorella De La O said she hopes the enthusiasm she has for Beacon sports will become contagious.

“Now I have a goal to just keep on running and getting better, because if you keep believing in yourself, it will take you places,” the anthrozoology major said. “And maybe in time, I’ll encourage others who want to run like me too.”