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Potential as Big as the Outdoors

Potential as Big as the Outdoors

Mississippi College is taking riding, sporting clay shooting, and fishing to the national level

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It all began with three Mississippi College students out for a drive on a sunny day. As they motored through rural Hinds County, the young women, all avid horseback riders, came upon a scene of pastoral beauty.

A rustic barn rose from the rolling hills, overlooking a tranquil lake and acres of well-maintained pastures. On a whim, the students stopped and asked the owner if she would consider letting their university begin an equestrian program on the beautiful property. To their surprise, the owner, Jamie Martin, said yes.

The Martin family had christened their retreat “Providence Hill Farm,” a testimony to their belief in God’s providence. In keeping with its name, the property and the programs it launched have been blessings to Mississippi College and its students.

From that initial request made by three college students out for a drive, three impressive outdoor sporting programs – equestrian hunter and jumper, sporting clay shooting, and bass fishing – were born at Mississippi College. MC launched the equestrian program in 2007, followed by sporting clay shooting and bass fishing in 2010. All three programs are headquartered at 2,000-acre Providence Hill Farm, a breathtaking retreat just a 15-minute drive from the MC campus, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of college life. 

In this serene setting, students learn more than just how to ride, shoot, and fish. They develop skills that will serve them in their lives outside of sports, and have an opportunity to connect with the beauty of God’s creation. More than just another part of the curriculum, the outdoor programs have proven to be a life-enhancing experience for the students who participate and an impressive drawing card for recruiting new students to Mississippi College.

In his multiple roles as MC’s director of outdoor programs and as vice president for enrollment services and dean of students, Jim Turcotte sees the impact of the outdoor programs on student recruiting first-hand. Participation in each program is growing, with many students choosing MC based solely on the opportunity to ride, shoot, or fish. 

There is no other college in Mississippi with access to a world-class equestrian, sporting clay shooting, and fishing facility like Providence Hill Farm,” Turcotte says. “By furthering these sports at the collegiate level, MC is offering students unique opportunities they won’t find at many other universities.”

All three teams are led by experienced coaches and have posted impressive results in national collegiate competitions. In 2014, the equestrian team finished third in its region. In 2012, the bass fishing team placed second out of 40 teams to qualify for the first regional tournament in MC history, and the sporting clay team placed third at the National Sporting Clays Association competition in Texas.

“Our vision is to see these three programs reach the top tier in the country, with MC earning national rankings in these life sports,” Turcotte says. “Looking at the early successes of these programs and the effect they’ve had on recruiting, I can honestly say that after 20 years at MC, the outdoor program is one of the things of which I’m most proud.” 

Saddling Up

The MC equestrian hunter jumper team competes in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, local Mississippi Hunter Jumper Association horse shows, and regional competitions.

Providence Hill Farm offers superior facilities for MC students who wish to hone their riding skills, including a well-equipped, 36-stall barn, a European covered horse walker, and a covered arena that allows students to ride in inclement weather. MC students have the opportunity to ride and to bond with 17 horses, including 12 owned by the university and five available through Providence Hill Farm.

In addition to fielding the competitive team, MC offers a popular physical education course in equestrian skills that offers any interested MC student the opportunity to ride. The equestrian program allows students from diverse backgrounds who have dreamed of riding but could not afford to own a horse the opportunity to experience the unique connection between rider and mount.

Chosen from a field of 40 applicants, Tina Davey joined the program as coach in 2012. A native of California, she brought an impressive record as a competitive rider and as the founder and coach of the University of California Irvine equestrian team. Davey left a position as general manager and trainer of a top riding academy in Huntington Beach, California, to lead the program.

“I was drawn to MC because it is a Christian college,” Davey says. “Months before I heard about the position here, I began feeling that God wanted me to go somewhere new. I toured the MC campus and Providence Hill and met some of the students, and I felt so strongly that the MC job was what God wanted for my life.”

Many of the team’s 23 riders came to MC specifically to join the equestrian team. Riders from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas are saddling up.

“The equestrian program is what brought me to MC. I’d considered riding in college for quite a few years, but it’s hard to find a school with a good program that isn't absurdly expensive and doesn’t require you to be winning on the A circuit before coming into college,” says Elizabeth Langford, an MC freshman from Oregon. “During my visit to MC, I came out to Providence Hill Farm and talked to Tina about the team, and that sealed the deal for me. My original plan was to transfer out my sophomore year, but once I got here, I ended up loving both the team and the community at MC so much that I've decided to stay for all four years."

The equestrian program was also a deciding factor for Orlando, Florida, native Leah Katynski ’13, who is now serving as a graduate assistant with the program while she earns her MBA from MC.

“I toured Providence Hill Farm and had a chance to ride on my visit, and that put the golden stamp on it. The next fall, I was here,” Katynski says. “I’ve made life-long friendships and I have great memories from the competitions. Under Tina’s leadership, I see the equestrian team just getting better and better, and I’ve met with prospective students on preview days at the farm and seen how important it is to recruiting. This program gives students a chance to be part of a winning team with Christian values that’s more like a family.”

Going Great Guns

MC followed the successful launch of the equestrian team with a sporting clay club, using the national-caliber sporting clay course at Providence Hill Farm as its training ground. Nestled in a pristine setting of forested paths and trails, the sporting clay range offers targets that mimic teal, doves, and pheasants, and includes a 13-station sporting clay course, duck flush, and trap skeet overlay. The MC program has attracted noted guest marksmen, including John Satterwhite, a former Olympic and World Championship shooter.

The team’s male and female members compete in local and regional collegiate tournaments. Just two years after they fired the first shot, the MC team placed third in the 2012 National Sporting Clays Association competition. The success of the program has prompted other educational institutions, including some at the high school level, to consult with MC on launching their own programs.

Sporting clay coach Jimmy Grant brings a special connection to Providence Hill Farm; he designed and built the property. Grant operates a successful consulting business specializing in agricultural and recreational land use development, and was hired by Providence Hill Farm’s owners to transform their land into the outdoor showplace it is today. Grant emphasizes that the sporting clay program isn’t about practicing for hunting, but is instead focused on proper mechanics of competitive target shooting.

“My passion is shooting, but I learned in the school of hard knocks. I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn how to shoot correctly when I was younger,” says Grant.

“Coaching the team has made me practice what I preach and as a result, I’m a better competitor. I get so much satisfaction from taking the ‘green’ students and guiding them up to the caliber of the skilled team shooters we have today.”

“Competing on the team has taught me two skills, patience and focus, that are important outside of sport shooting,” says team member Cameron Boyd. “And I’ll never forget experiencing the amazing sporting clay course at Providence Hill for the first time.”

“The sporting clay program challenged me to step out of my comfort zone,” says team member Melissa Cunningham. “Spending time at Providence Hill has been one of my favorite things about attending MC. Just the opportunity to get outdoors and have some fun enjoying God’s beautiful creation, to get away from the stress of class and studying, has been a huge relief for me. The biggest thing I’ve learned from being on the sporting clays team is to take that first step out of your comfort zone, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. You definitely won’t regret it.”

Casting a Line

The MC bass fishing team is one of more than 600 clubs competing in the FLW, the country’s largest tournament for collegiate anglers. In just its second year on the water, the MC team fished its way to the FLW regional tournament, reeling in $1,500 in prize money for MC in the process.

The team practices at the sparkling, 150-acre lake at Providence Hill Farm. The toughest challenge facing the team so far has been the lack of a university-owned boat. Mississippi’s professional fishermen have stepped up to help meet that challenge, offering their own boats and lending their expertise by fishing alongside the students during practices.

Webb Collums, professional angler and former Media Bass Circuit Angler of the Year, serves as the team’s coach. While winning at tournaments is always a highlight, Collums’ greater pleasure comes from the opportunity to teach students a lifelong skill they can share with future generations.

“Twenty, 30, or 50 years from now, we might not remember what we made on a biology test or what we got for Christmas, but you’ll rarely find a person that doesn’t remember catching that first fish,” Collums says. “My hope is that some day these students will teach their own kids the fishing skills and life lessons they’ve learned from their involvement on the team. The future of any sport is in the youth, and if they’re not introduced to it, they’ll never know what they’re missing.”

“Competitive fishing teaches patience, conservation, and how to be good stewards of God’s creation,” says team angler Jacob Harthcock. “I absolutely love the outdoors, and the fishing team is a way for me to get outside, relax, and just push pause on things. Fishing helps me gain my peace of mind before heading back to the grindstone.”

“The fishing team has introduced me to guys and girls from other colleges around the Southeast,” says team member Quentin Bremenkamp. “Having an organized fishing team gives us the opportunity to do what we love in a competitive manner, while bringing national recognition to Mississippi College.” 

“Several things tell me that this program is the right thing for MC and for our students,” says Coach Collums. “It’s when they compete in their first tournament and you can’t wipe the grins off their faces. It’s the emails, text messages, and phone calls I get at all hours of the day and night asking about fishing lures or lakes. It’s the pictures they post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram of fish they’ve caught on their own time. It’s the students that have graduated, but still send me pictures of the fish they caught. Those are the moments that mean the most to me.”

“My former husband, E.B. Martin, Jr., and I always intended to use this property in a way that demonstrated God’s providence and promoted his gifts, but we weren’t sure what that might be,” Jamie Martin says. “When those three young women showed up and asked us to let MC use the farm, I remember thinking, ‘This is it.’ I see God’s providence in connecting all the dots, in allowing us to have the property and in bringing together all of these people so that Mississippi College can use it for their students. I believe our connection with Mississippi College is one of the reasons we were led to develop Providence Hill Farm.”

It’s little wonder MC students find such solace in the outdoor sports programs and in the pastoral surroundings of Providence Hill Farm. As the book of Job reminds, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”