The NAIA announced Friday at its 2017 Cross Country National Championships in Vancouver, Wash., that the Montreat College Cavaliers’ men’s cross country team has been designated as its 2017 Buffalo Funds Five-Star Champions of Character Team Award winner.

The award is presented to a single program in each of the NAIA’s championship-sponsored sports that exhibits the five tenets of the association’s Champions of Character initiative: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, and servant leadership.

“I speak on behalf of our team when I say we are humbled and honored to receive this award,” said Montreat College Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Jason Lewkowicz. “As a team we aim to use the sport of cross country to accomplish something greater than just running a race. Our utmost desire is to use our platform to bless others and bring honor to our amazing God, who gave us this opportunity.”

Lewkowicz is Montreat College’s director of track & field and cross country and is assisted by coaches Britten Olinger and Jason Scott. In February of this year, Olinger was severely injured in a life-threatening auto accident in the nearby community of Black Mountain that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Coach Olinger spent the next four months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers working to recover from his injuries. During this time, the team worked collectively to raise funds for Coach Olinger, including joining larger community efforts and collecting funds at Montreat’s home track meets.

Over the summer and into the fall, the team – along with the women’s cross country team and other community members – helped in the reconstruction of Coach Olinger’s home, transforming both the inside and outside to be made wheelchair accessible.

The team continues to support Coach Olinger by serving as babysitters for his two young children and assisting with projects around his home as needed. Coach Olinger has returned to coaching on a part-time basis and has been an inspiration to the entire team.

“The team’s willingness to love and support one of their coaches in these capacities has shown tremendous integrity, responsibility to help someone in need, and respect for someone who has helped pour into their lives,” said Lewkowicz. “They have truly been servant leaders through this ordeal and have helped uplift the spirits of a family in transition.”

In addition, the team, in conjunction with the Montreat women’s cross country team, has developed a relationship with the Black Mountain Home for Children, and has team members spend two hours each Thursday spending recreational time with the children at the home. They served at the home’s annual fall festival, which is its primary fundraiser and attracts thousands of visitors to its campus. The team manned the game and craft stations for the entire day and exhibited servant leadership and responsibility to care for the community.

The team also served the Owen Middle School cross country team, attending their home meet in late September and later volunteering to host the middle school’s conference championship. The cross country team served as course monitors and cheerleaders and set up and broke down the course, reflecting sportsmanship in modeling good character and giving of their time to support fellow runners.

“This group of young men, along with the rest of our program, have bought into this mindset and have made it a priority to serve and give of their time, talents, and resources,” said Lewkowicz. “So much of what we have done as a team has been initiated and organized by our student-athletes and it has been amazing to see their servant leadership on display.”

Montreat College Athletic Director Jose Larios, a former standout cross-country runner and coach, was excited to hear of the news. “We are thrilled by the recognition of our men’s cross country team by the NAIA,” said Larios. “Our student-athletes are the main focus of our Christ-centered intentionality. This award belongs to both the men’s and women’s team as they operate so closely as one family unit. It begins with our coaching staff, and coaches Lewkowicz, Scott, and Olinger exude the highest level of character in all facets of their lives. Congrats to all our cross country team members!”