Alumni Plaza the center of the Dowagiac campus


Coaches Ty Wolf, Zac Sartori

Cross Country Coaches Ty Wolf, Zac Sartori

Three-time SMC All-American Coaches in Illinois

Published on March 28, 2024 - 3 p.m.

Ty Wolf was one and done his first time at Southwestern Michigan College.

But what a year it was once he got here. A three-time All-American and one of four All-Americans on Coach Ron Gunn’s 1982 cross country team, which finished third in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).

“We won the marathon championship and I won the national two-mile indoors and was fifth in the mile in ’83,” Wolf said. “I think I had the school record in the 10,000 meters, 29:57.”

Wolf coaches now and is having a similar impact on the Heartland Community College Hawks, who visited from Normal, Ill., Aug. 18 for a preseason practice on SMC’s Dowagiac campus with Coach Zac Sartori’s Roadrunners.

From SMC, Wolf transferred to the University of Illinois, where he was MVP and co-captain of the 1984 Big Ten champions.

He continued his All-American ways and held Illini school records for 8,000 meters in cross country (23:43) and the indoor 3000-meter run (8:03.7).

When Wolf capped his 34-year education career by retiring as a school superintendent in 2018, only one item remained on his bucket list — start a distance-running program from scratch at a community college.

So, he launched Heartland’s program, which immediately emerged as an NJCAA Division II powerhouse.

Their first year, 2020, Heartland’s women placed second at the NJCAA National Cross Country Meet, with the men fifth.

The Hawks recorded 12 All-American runners in two seasons.

In 2021, the Hawk women’s team placed second at the NJCAA National Cross Country Meet with three U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association of New Orleans (USTFCCCA) All-American runners. The men’s team was close behind in third with four USTFCCCA All-Americans.

Last fall, the Heartland men were NJCAAA Division II runners-up in Tallahassee, where Paradise Valley won the title, with SMC 16th. The Hawk women claimed third place at nationals, where SMC finished 13th.

Wolf, who lived off-campus on James Street, near Justus Gage Elementary School pre-residence halls, came to Dowagiac from Oswego, Ill.

Oswego sent several runners Gunn’s way, including Dave Finnestad, a member of SMC’s fourth cross country national champions in 1978.

“Dave won the outdoor 1500 meters at juco nationals,” Wolf said. “I was always chasing Finnestad at Oswego High School. He actually invited me up for a visit at one point, so I knew about Coach Gunn and how beautiful the school was with trails.”

But his senior year of high school, Wolf got recruited to run for Northern Illinois. He signed a scholarship letter only to learn that March that the program was being dropped.

“I thought I was set,” Wolf said, “and now I’m looking for a school. I went to Indiana State and it wasn’t a good fit. I was souring on running because it was more like a business than fun, and if you know Ron, he does make it fun. I knew they had good runners here” just from Oswego.

“I knew Dave Finnestad, so I decided to run for SMC,” Wolf said. “I came here for one year, but it was my favorite year of college. Now that I’m coaching, my goal is to make the experience fun with a good team culture. I knew I wanted to teach and coach, but I thought I was going to be an athletic director and coach. I coached for five years at Western Illinois University, then met my wife and went to Quincy, Ill., to teach and coach at the high school level, got recruited to be a principal and became a superintendent.”

He and Dr. Diane Wolf have four children and live in Bloomington, Ill.

“What’s funny is when I was at Illinois in 1986, when I graduated, I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life. Be a school superintendent. Get my doctorate. The only thing I hadn’t done was start a distance-running program from scratch at a community college. Right after I retired, Heartland posted it was going to start a program. It was a match made in heaven. Last year we had six kids qualify for the Division I track nationals and one of our girls was All-American in the 5000, then we had two girls place ninth and 10th and a boy finished ninth in the 10000.”


Running for Gunn

Wolf thought the Hawk women were going to win it all in 2020, only to fall three points short.

“Another little trick I learned from Coach Gunn,” he said, “is I never see the finish line of a national meet. I’m sitting like three-quarters of a mile away, counting points. I thought we’d won as they were coming in. We were ahead, but then someone from another school passed our girl and another girl dropped a place. But second place the first year is not bad.”

Entering his fourth campaign, Wolf is understandably excited.

“We have very strong teams this year. I feel like we’ve gotten better every year, but so has the competition. We’re starting to cook with fire as we get different kinds of kids,” Wolf said. “They’re pretty fired up.”

Realizing he uttered Gunn’s favorite expression, Wolf said sheepishly, “Yeah, I use it, too. Coach Gunn spoke with our team Wednesday night. Now my runners look at me like they know where I got my tricks.”

“There’s a saying in education,” Wolf said, “‘It doesn’t matter how much you know until they know how much you care,’ and he makes you feel like a million bucks. He really instilled the love of running in his runners. That meant a lot to me because I was at the point where I could have quit running because of my bad experience at Indiana State. He’s a great guy and made you want to go out and be your best.”

Gazing out of the glass wall of the Student Activity Center at the meticulously maintained grounds while his team polishes off pizza, Wolf marvels at the view.

“It was beautiful then, but it’s even more beautiful now,” he said. “The trails are so close, and there’s so many other great places nearby to run, like beaches, it’s tremendous. This is a great place for someone who wants to run. That’s why I loved it so much.”

Asked how long he and SMC Coach Zac Sartori have been acquainted, Wolf said he knew of the Illinois native well before they actually met.

“He was a very good runner in high school, so I knew the name,” Wolf said. “There were a couple of decades that I wasn’t involved in track or cross country at all until I started back in 2019.”