By Kathryn Howe

Every time Athletic Director Paul Gavin ’88 stands on the new athletic complex plaza, surveying the fields in each direction, he feels the hairs raise up on his arms as he considers this dream turned reality for the school he loves.

The view from the plaza, with a Mustang emblazoned across the turf, delivers what he and the other coaches refer to as the “wow factor”—a special place they can bring recruits, alumni, and friends to take pride in all Mount Mercy can now offer today’s student-athletes.

Earlier this fall, the $16 million Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex began its debut season with a Grand Opening, which included the induction of the new Hall of Fame class, remarks by President Laurie Hamen and key dignitaries, as well as tours of Busse Softball Field, the multipurpose field, and the baseball stadium.

For the first time in the athletic program’s history, the MMU Mustangs have a permanent outdoor home-field advantage of their very own. The complex serves six of MMU’s 18 intercollegiate sports: baseball, softball, men’s and women’s track and field, and men’s and women’s soccer.

“Sometimes I can’t believe this is ours,” says Jason Furler ’95, sports information director, who, like Gavin, has a long history with MMU. Furler has been with the school 20-plus years, and Gavin is a former student-athlete and coach of both men’s basketball and golf. That rich past is part of what makes it so special to gaze down upon a beautiful field with Mount Mercy in gold block letters.

The wide impact the state-of-the-art facility will have on the Mount Mercy student body is indisputable: Student-athletes make up half of this fall’s first-year traditional undergraduate class with over 400 total students currently participating in athletics. Besides being outstanding athletes, they are outstanding students. Combined, the average student-athlete GPA exceeds 3.0. Twelve of MMU’s 18 sports are NAIA scholar teams with a cumulative 3.0 GPA.

Meeting the Needs of Our Time

While MMU’s outdoor athletes have enjoyed many victorious seasons in spite of having no home field, the need has always been there. With the financial support at last in place, and 22 acres of industrial land acquired, (located at 651 19th St. NE, just a few short blocks from the Hill) the project broke ground in June 2016.

2017 MMU Hall of Fame inductees Lavern and Audrey Busse are avid softball enthusiasts. Providing the lead gift for the Mustang softball field was a perfect match for the Lavern T. and Audrey Busse Foundation and further enhances the Mount Mercy-Busse legacy.

“It’s like going from a one-room apartment to a penthouse,” says Gavin. “Our coaches and staff are overjoyed for their student-athletes and the success of their sports. I can’t wait to see our athletes grow, play, and learn over the years.”

No more longing for the fields at other schools. No more losing precious minutes loading up gear and vans and driving across the Cedar Rapids metro area for practice at Xavier or Kennedy high schools, a process that longtime soccer coach Amir Hadzic knows all too well.

“It didn’t hit me until I received a set of keys from Paul,” Hadzic says. “As I left his office, I suddenly had shivers realizing what that moment meant for our program.”

Hadzic says the complex will be essential for the future of MMU soccer, from recruiting, camps, and clinics to bringing potential high school prospects to campus. Ultimately, the facilities will ensure a continuation of his nationally recognized NAIA program.

It’s like going from a one-room apartment to a penthouse.

—Paul Gavin

“I’ve coached here for over 20 years and, during this time, we used more than 10 venues for our practices and games,” Hadzic says. “We invested a lot of resources and valuable time just to travel to those sites each day.

Now, we can use our time better to extend our practice sessions and work individually with our players to make them even better student-athletes.”

Some highlights include Musco lighting that allows night games—and therefore fewer missed classes—and artificial turf that holds up against the elements. The LED lights can be turned on via an app from anywhere in the world. Additionally, the multipurpose field has been thoughtfully built with expansion in mind for possible future sports, such as football and lacrosse.

Gavin says the ability to train and compete on first-class facilities has already impacted recruitment and interest in outdoor sports programs. More than 35 new players joined the baseball program this fall. The track and field and cross country programs are expected to increase from a roster of 75 up to 130 in the next two to three years, with an anticipated rise in new field event participants.

“I had a recruiting visit the morning of our grand opening, and the kids were amazed,” says Jamie Jimison, track and field and cross country head coach. “That ‘wow factor’ is something we’ve never had, and it makes a huge difference. The ability to train athletes in our own space means so much to our recruitment.”

Baseball coach Jack Dahm agrees. “It’s outstanding what we have here at Mount Mercy,” he says. “It’s truly a one-of-a-kind facility.”

Without doubt, it’s a great time to be a Mustang. ■

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The Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex will make additional community outreach efforts possible, including Mount Mercy’s planned JumpStart program, which will collaborate with local social service agencies and neighborhood organizations to provide activities for area youth.

JumpStart’s mission is to inspire children in Cedar Rapids to reach their educational potential by teaching them essential lessons in leadership and academics through sports.