Track season is always a busy time for Mark Love.
The Patrick Henry track coach is still busy — but just not with track. He misses it too.
“You get stressed out coaching. I coach cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, but outdoor track is the busiest of them all, plus the paperwork you have got to do,” said Love, who shares head track duties with Sarah Helton. “I get stressed out during the season, but you don’t know how much you miss it until you don’t get to do it. I miss it tremendously, and I know those kids do too.
“I wish we were still out there, but we can’t wait [until] all this is over and we can get back to a normal life. It would be nice.”
Very. Life has been abnormal for all since the coronavirus forced the closure of schools in March and the eventual cancellation of spring sports. So many hopes and dreams were shattered, including the Patrick Henry girls’ track team’s pursuit of a state championship repeat on the track.
“We were expecting a very big season with the girls. We had thoughts of defending that state championship,” said Love, whose Rebels lost five seniors but added several promising freshmen from the middle school program. “I really felt they could do it; we had most everybody back.
“That is the disappointing thing. I feel bad for the girls because they had a chance to do something that has never been done at Patrick Henry, back-to-back state titles. I am certain they would have had a very, very good shot of winning it. It is just too bad that all this was happening and kept them from being able to do that.”
Ditto for the boys, who fell one spot short of winning the Region 1D crown last season. Love felt they could get over the top this spring.
“The boys would have been very good. I think they would have had a shot at a region championship. We were very young last year, and they were region runner-ups,” Love said. “We didn’t lose very much off that team either. We had most everybody back too, so I think they would have been very good and had a good shot at a region title for them.”
Instead, it all came to a premature end, having practiced for less than two weeks when the entire school population was called to the auditorium for a meeting with the message that schools would be closed, first for two weeks and then later permanently during the spring.
“It was just really weird. When he told us two weeks, I just had in the back of my mind, ‘This is the last day, we are not coming back,’ from watching TV and everything that was going on,” he said.
That didn’t stop practice, at least for one day.
“We went ahead and practiced that day — they let us practice that day,” said Love, who keeps up with his athletes through texts and emails. “We talked to them and told them what to expect, and we were going to send the workouts to them, but I was 100% sure that was the last time I was going to see them, that the season was going to be canceled.
“It was very depressing, I will tell you, that last day of practice.”
No wonder. Patrick Henry won the Class 1 state championship last season and had a majority of that team back, including four seniors who played huge roles in that success, led by Maggie Buchanan, Sarah Cornett, Abigail Belcher and Catherine Grossman, all of whom had also won individual state titles.
“I have got four seniors, and they are pretty big. Each one of them has won a state title while they have been here, not only as a team, but individual as well,” said Love, who calls those four seniors “very special girls.” “Even though it is only four, those are four that are hard to replace.
“We are losing four really good athletes but also four really good kids. They are great kids to coach, and I am going to miss them tremendously.”
While those seniors will move on, there will be talent coming back, led by Ella Maiden, who recorded points in seven different events in the state meet last spring, six of which were held on the same sultry day at East Rockingham High School in Elkton, Virginia.
“She was unreal. It was unlucky for her. We knew she could do all those events, but it was spread out over two days. Then Friday, when we had thunderstorms and everything got pushed back ...” he said. “She was just overloaded, but there was nothing you could do.
“She was stuck doing all of them in one day, and she came through. She is an amazing athlete and just an amazing kid, and she wanted to make sure she helped the team out. That was her main focus.”
As for the boys, Ben Belcher, Wyatt Wright and Connor Beeson were expected to lead the Rebels. Beeson had made a remarkable recovery from a horrible ankle injury suffered in football, and Love said he was planning to slowly work his way back into track.
The Virginia High School League had left some hope early in the process that spring sports might be able to have some type of limited program later in the spring, but Love was skeptical from the start.
“Even though they put that in there, that there is a possibility they might do something once May got here, I think all the coaches knew it was going to be canceled,” he said. “We kind of went into a mode of not doing much at all. It was just so disappointing.
“We were just so distressed over things, but of course the most important thing is to make sure everybody is healthy and everything was being done the right way, but it was very disappointing for the kids.”
Love said the focus for the non-seniors has been preparing for the fall. Maiden and her sister, Avery, are standouts on the volleyball team, Beeson will be a speedy running back for the football team, and many of his runners are on the cross country team.
Life must go on.
“I have started getting in contact with some of them getting ready for cross country,” he said. “I know once the season was canceled, a lot of those kids started focusing on what they are doing in the fall. ... We are kind of in full mode right now. You kind of have to go into that to keep you from being depressed by losing the season.”
With so many returnees and talented newcomers on the way, Love is confident that the future remains bright for Patrick Henry track, but he will always wonder what his current team could have accomplished if given the chance.
“I just feel so bad for them because not only are these seniors losing out on their senior year and all the graduation stuff they get to do,” he said, “but when you have a track team that has a chance to win another state championship and the boys have a chance to win a region title, there is no way you can get that back.
“It is just very disappointing. I feel bad for the kids, so bad for them.”
Love has tried to stay active — taking care of his farm in addition to teaching duties — during the quarantine that has shut down much of our nation, but he knows where he would like to be spending his time.
“I have been pretty busy,” he said, “but I would definitely rather be at school right now instead of sitting here at home.”