Ranger trio joining SMC cross country team

DOWAGIAC — Cassopolis’s “Three Amigos” March 31 signed letters of intent for Southwestern Michigan College’s fall return to National Junior College Athletic Association cross country.

Commitments by Rangers Robert “Buster” Ward, William Westphal and Ben Gillesby help grow the team, joining Decatur’s Gavin Smith, Otsego’s Samuel Reed-Loomis and Coloma’s Vanessa Crisenbery as Roadrunners.

All three are dual-enrolled at SMC as well as teammates from a variety of sports in the Class of 2021 at Ross Beatty Junior-Senior High School, but their friendship dates to childhood, from hunting and fishing to showing animals at the Cass County Fair.

“We’ve been best friends since preschool,” Ward said. “A goal of mine has always been to be a collegiate athlete, so when this opportunity presented itself, it was hard to turn down, plus the closeness to home. Instead of adjusting to a new college, I can focus on running. I’m really excited to run.”

Ward, who ran cross country three years for the Rangers, wants to major in criminal justice to become a conservation officer. Ward, whose resume also includes track and soccer, recruited his two friends to join him in cross country sophomore year. “I talked them into it,” he smiled.

“I figured it couldn’t be that hard,” Westphal said. “My mistake.”

“Running really tugs at the mental aspect,” Gillesby agreed. “I’m the runt of the three. My goal is to beat one of them because I’m always behind.”

Westphal, who will be wrestling for Cassopolis at state this weekend, said, “We all have the same interests. Buster and I have been hunting together since we were little. And Ben and I have been showing animals together since we were little.

“I think we’re all afraid to admit it, but we need each other as a support system. We keep each other working,” Westphal said.

Westphal will also pursue criminal justice. Besides wrestling and cross country, he was in soccer and track and played football one season.

“You get to know a lot of people in a small community,” Gillesby said, “and we’ve just stuck close with one another because of that.” Gillesby intends to major in education “because I really want to help people. I could see myself coaching cross country or soccer.” He also ran track and tried out for baseball.

They said when they look at photographs of the trio preserving their memories, “It’s surprising, but we are always in the same exact order in every picture.”

Gillesby sees SMC as his next step in evolving into a responsible adult environment “where you’re accountable for your own things.”

The pandemic played havoc with cross country senior year.

“We were ranked to go to state,” Ward said, “but then quarantines, and we didn’t have enough for a team to compete in regionals” Oct. 30 at Portage Central. “We were the best team in our region. Compared to our freshmen year, when there weren’t enough for a team, then us three along with a couple of other kids, we had a team.”

Their fondest memory will be bringing home a team trophy from a pre-regional race in Decatur, finishing second to Lawrence, 31-37. Eau Claire came in third with 75 points, Marcellus fourth with 84.

Ward finished third overall with a 5K time of 18:38, with Westphal seventh in 19:19 and Gillesby 12th in 20:36.

“We really push each other a lot,” Ward said. “We’re always trying to one-up each other with, ‘I did this many miles this week.’ We’re all very competitive. We’ve done so much stuff together, we’re like brothers.”

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