After a nine-year absence, NAIT’s golf and cross country teams will be returning for the 2023-24 season. The two teams have a long history at NAIT spanning back to the 1967-68 season. The Ooks won their first golf ACAC Championship just four years into the school’s existence, and the teams won a combined 37 ACAC titles before being cut in 2014 due to financial reasons.
The teams’ departure was a mystery to many on campus, including current NAIT Athletics Director, Jordan Richey. “I always thought at that time, those aren’t very expensive sports, why are we cutting those two?” Richey said. “It didn’t make sense to me.”
When Richey assumed the position of Director in 2019, he was intrigued at the opportunity to revive the programs.
“It was a no-brainer to bring them in,” he explained. “For the number of student athlete opportunities that were available, with those two sports and for the cost, we’re really excited.”
Initially the department had plans to restart the two sports when Richey became director, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the possibility of the programs returning for the time being. “When did I start thinking about it? Probably as soon as I became director of athletics … that was right before a pandemic, so that wasn’t the right time to do it.”
After a three year wait and passing the ACAC entrance requirements, it was official: NAIT would add golf and cross country back into its athletics portfolio “They’re [the ACAC] very excited,” said Richey. “It was a unanimous decision for us to be back in the league.”
Building from the ground up
While the teams dominated the conference in previous years, Richey understands they have their work cut out for them.
“The league’s landscape has changed a lot,” he said. “Basically, we’re creating a program from scratch,” Richey said.
To head up the new programs the Ooks hired the assistant coach from the women’s hockey team, Tyler Leicht, to serve as head coach of the golf team and newcomer Ron Barnhart as the cross-country head coach.
Both coaches hold extensive resumes in their respective sports. Leicht is entering his third year as a PGA of Canada Professional, and Barnhart notably served as the technical manager for Canada’s National Cross-Country team in the 1999 Pan Am Games.
Leicht plans to use previous coaching experience to help guide him through his first season as head coach, and growth of the athlete will be his first priority.
“It’s always nice to see … athletes progress not only athletically, but also academically,” Leicht explained. “Because the biggest thing is, you can teach golf all you want, but it’s the life lessons … that you’re able to walk away with [things] to help you in life is really what’s going to matter.”
Like Leicht, Barnhart carries a similar philosophy: “I look at the whole person, not just the individual who’s running as a competitor.” With four decades of experience in cross country, he hopes his knowledge of the sport will transform the program into one of the best in the conference.
“I want us to be the program, I want us to be the team [that] everybody says, ‘Oh my gosh, NAIT’s coming.’ We’re running for second place … we’re not running for first.”
It will be a significant challenge for both programs to restart after their prolonged absence, but Richey says he hopes to see the Ooks once again contending for wins and championships in golf and cross country in the near future.
“We’re going to be instantly competitive … I would say within three to five [years], we’d be competing for National Championships.”