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Athletes of Distinction

Lea Plarski Award
2013 Lea Plarski Award - Sierra Downs
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Recognized for her contributions in the areas of sportsmanship, leadership, community service, academic excellence and athletic achievement, Mercer County Community College women’s cross country runner Sierra Downs was named the winner of the 2013 Lea Plarski Award by the NJCAA national office Monday.

“To say that I am honored would be a huge understatement,” Downs said. “It has been an immense privilege in itself to represent Mercer County Community College on and off the cross country course, but to be nationally recognized for such a prestigious award – especially under Lea Plarski’s legacy – will forever have an impact on my future. Knowing that she has left such an incredible mark on so many lives, I can only hope to live up to the same high standards in my own life and career.”

“It’s an incredible honor to have one of my runners win this award,” said Mercer County head coach Erin Cahill-Wetzel. “As a program that just completed its third year as a collegiate team, to have one of the program’s first two-year runners earn this prestigious award is pretty amazing. I want a team of not just successful runners, but athletes who perform well academically, demonstrate good sportsmanship and give back to the community.  Sierra demonstrated this perfectly.  I feel very fortunate to have coached such a successful student-athlete.”

In two years at Mercer County, Downs’ leadership helped establish herself as captain of the women’s cross country team last season. An All-Region 19 performer in 2011 and 2012, Downs qualified for the NJCAA DI Women’s Cross Country National Championship in her freshman year. Downs also posted back-to-back top 10 finishes at the Cumberland County College Invitational.

“Sierra was a great leader for our team,” said Cahill-Wetzell. “She always pushed herself in every workout and was someone I knew I could count on to lead warm-ups on workout or race days or lead the team on runs.  Sierra remained positive all the time.  Even if we did not perform to our abilities, she still found something positive about the race or workout.  She was so encouraging to all her teammates and she would always cheer our runners in to the finish after she was done.  She not only cheered for her teammates, but would encourage the runners on other teams as they came to the finish line as well.”

Downs may have not always been the fastest runner on the course but she was hard to keep up with in the classroom. Earning a 3.68 grade-point average in 69 credit hours, the liberal arts major received the NJCAA Exemplary Academic Achievement award in both 2012 and 2013. Downs was also a member of the Phi Theta Kappa and Psi Beta national honor societies.

“My drive to succeed academically has always been internal, but I can’t deny that it also had to do with my upbringing,” Downs said. “I was more than fortunate to have been raised in an environment where asking questions was encouraged, creativity was wholly embraced, mistakes were seen as an opportunity for growth and the smallest achievement was never left uncelebrated.”

Outside her scheduled courses, Downs was President of the New Jersey Stars Academic Club, a senior reporter and copy editor for The College Voice – Mercer County’s student newspaper – and a member of the Mercer County Philosophy Club. In the summer of 2012, Downs participated in a study-abroad program in South Africa after having already participated in a study-abroad program in Costa Rica that spring.

“Sierra participated in both the Costa Rica and South Africa Study Abroad programs because she is committed to learning about other cultures, their history and people,” said Mercer County President, Dr. Patricia Donahue. “I was impressed as she engaged the youth population at the Nkosi’s Haven, an aids orphanage in South Africa. She demonstrated deep compassion and concern for humanity and a desire to make a positive impact on the global society. I understand there was a similar exchange at a teen pregnancy center in Costa Rica.”

Immediately springing to action in response to disaster, Downs showcased her commitment to helping others when they needed it most. In response to the Boston Marathon bombings in May, Downs organized the “Spirit for Boston” 5K to raise money for Boston Children’s Hospital. Following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, Downs coordinated the cross country team’s service in Belmar, N.J.

“Although my drive to help others in need is internal,” Downs said, “I find the satisfaction from accepting gratitude to be almost selfish in an odd way. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out for the whole of humanity.”

Within her own community, Downs has dedicated her time and effort towards the Autism Speaks 5K and the Ewing Area Adult Resource Center which advocates for mentally disabled adults.

“Sierra’s Treasures was an idea that originated when I was eight years old when a neighbor with Leukemia needed help paying for medical bills,” Downs said. “My mother helped me establish the business. I began to make jewelry and soon sold it at craft fairs to raise money. It continued to be a huge success for quite some time. More recently, Sierra’s Treasures has been on hiatus at points because of my schedule, but I still donate any proceeds to families in need of financial assistance due to illness.”

Despite all of her efforts towards athletics, academics and community service, Downs has held three jobs during her collegiate career. With such a crammed schedule, time management quickly became a vital tool for Downs to utilize.

“Having such a hectic schedule has definitely taken its toll on me at times,” Downs said. “While I was at Mercer, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis and after not getting enough rest, it only became worse. I was obviously very sick and not my normal self at all for about three months. Since then, I have had a much better appreciation for how to balance my life. I’ve recognized that although there will always be important things in life to accomplish, you have absolutely nothing without your health.”

Despite the physical and mental stress that Downs suffered due to her workload, she was able to gain strength from her family and friends.

“I especially appreciated the support of my wonderful teammates, who were always positive and willing to help others with the same amount of enthusiasm,” Downs said. “Coming from almost nothing, our team has made tremendous strides while coming together and growing as a very close-knit family. Another significant source of encouragement came from my actual family, including my parents and younger brother Devon, who never ceases to amaze me in all that he is able to accomplish as well.”

Cahill-Wetzel believes that with so many responsibilities taking up Downs’ free time, she was able to relieve a lot of stress through athletics.

“I think cross country served as an outlet for Sierra,” Cahill-Wetzel said. “She definitely took on a lot between working, classes, and clubs on campus. Cross country gave her a supportive group of girls to train with every day.  I think cross country is a sport that requires both a lot of dedication and a lot of discipline in order to be successful.  These same requirements that help athletes find success in cross country, also  help them achieve more in whatever they take on in life and Sierra ‘s accomplishments are proof of that.”

Looking ahead, Downs plans on attending Boston University’s College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College. Downs wants to study Speech Language and Hearing Sciences with the long-term goal of becoming a certified bilingual speech-language pathologist.

The NJCAA’s Lea Plarski Award is handed out annually in the name of former NJCAA President Lea Plarski as recognition of her tremendous service to the NJCAA and two-year college athletics. The former director of athletics at St. Louis Community College/Florissant Valley, Plarski helped to establish the Women’s Division of the NJCAA in 1975.  She served as Vice-President for Women from 1975-1990 when she made NJCAA history as the first female ever elected to the office of President, a position she held from 1990-1996. In honor of her numerous accomplishments, as well as her undeniable dedication to the student-athlete, the NJCAA Lea Plarski Award was created.  Since 1995, the award has been presented to an NJCAA student-athlete who exemplifies sportsmanship, leadership, community service, academic excellence, athletic ability and achievements – qualities that were the cornerstones of the Plarski “era”.

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) is the governing body of two-year college athletics, offering endless athletic and academic opportunities to college students. It is the second largest national intercollegiate athletic organization in the United States with over 500 member schools in 43 states. Each year over 50,000 student-athletes compete in one of 28 different sports and the organization sponsors 48 national championship events and nine football bowl games each year. For more visit www.njcaa.org.


Year Name School
 2011-12   Cassie Dumoulin  Elgin CC, Ill.
 2010-11    Abby Barnett  Bevill State, Ala.
 2009-10   Jocelyn Fischer  Adirondack, N.Y.
 2008-09   Geofrey Kalanzi  Dakota County Tech, Minn.
 2007-08   Christopher Glaze  Jones County, Miss.
 2006-07   Angela Verbeelen  Florida CC
 2005-06   Patrick Lepper  John Wood, Ill.
 2004-05   Kayla Shaul  Daytona Beach, Fla.
 2003-04   Theresa Berry  Bevill State-Fayette, Ala.
 2002-03   Melanie Mendrop  Hinds, Miss.
 2001-02   Jermaine Harris  Georgia Military
 2000-01   Mindy Madewell  Connors State, Okla. 
 1999-00   Larry Scheller  Belleville Area, Ill.
 1998-99   Sarah Wood  St. Louis-Meramec, Mo.
 1997-98   Douglas Bates
 Terra Sarnacki-Royer 
 Pensacola JC, Fla.
 SUNY-Cobleskill, N.Y. 
 1996-97   George Russell Sanders 
 Amy Lucas 
 Jones County, Miss.
 Middle Georga
 1995-96   John Combs
 Amy Parker 
 Lees, Ky.
 Jones County, Miss. 

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