By TREY WILLIAMS
Thinking about his 2020 seniors losing their final track and field season to the coronavirus pandemic still really smarts for Daniel Boone coach Len Jeffers.
The Trailblazers senior runners included valedictorian Chris Upham, co-salutatorian Keaton Smith and Grace Sheldon and Max Austin, who graduated Nos. 6 and 9, respectively, in the senior class.
“We had four ranked in the top nine in the senior class,” Jeffers said. “All of the seniors had their own identity. Some have been more on the athletic side, some more on the academic side and some on both.”
Smith and Austin were both. They were on a state championship indoor relay team last winter.
Austin will run at Milligan University, where Jeffers says he’ll be in capable hands with Buffalos coach Chris Layne.
Smith will attend East Tennessee State after being selected as one of the region’s eight Roan Scholars.
Smith, Sheldon and Austin were among Jeffers’ 10 senior runners. The others included Carlos Brown, Jameson Cline, Austin Galloway, Mason Lewis, Judy Chellah and Lauren Spry.
Lewis and Spry will join Upham at Milligan. Chellah will compete for Tusculum University.
“All 10 of them could be competing in college this year if they wanted to,” Jeffers said. “Four of ‘em chose to. The others chose to more or less focus on academics.”
Jeffers fondly recalled Brown gutsily capping a perfect team finish for the ‘Blazers cross country team in Morristown.
“We actually had the first four boys finish and he was in a dead race with another boy, I think, from Morristown West for that fifth spot,” Jeffers said. “And he gutted it out and outraced the boy to the finish line and gave us a clean sweep of the top five spots. It was the first time in 30 years I’ve been coaching that we had a perfect team score of 15 points.
“He knew he was fifth on the team and he was racing a boy from another school, and if we swept the top five we’d have perfect score. And he put it all out there. He had a great race that day.”
Effort was a constant, Jeffers said, with his 2020 seniors.
“The cool thing was they all worked hard,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence in all of ‘em. Keaton Smith made a huge improvement from his junior year to his senior. Max Austin continued working hard and raced better last fall. Austin Galloway had to deal with some injuries early in the fall, but worked his way back to the varsity by the conference or region meet (in cross country) and ended up No. 4 for us in the state meet. Chris Upham is a very bright young man and he made a lot of progress over the last couple of years. Lauren Spry worked hard. Grace Sheldon continued to work hard. Judy Chellah has been one of our top girls for several years.”
Jeffers also had senior Beth James, who was transitioning to throws as a senior.
“Beth was making progress this spring,” he said. “She’d come to me and asked if she could switch from sprints to throwing events to help the team. And she was making a lot of progress early in the spring in the throwing events before the season got cut way short. I think she was going to be a bright spot for us.”
It’s still hard to see much of a silver lining for those involved in spring sports in 2020. The season was suspended in mid-March and subsequently canceled – seemingly in slow motion – in late April. Jeffers said it was about as trying for the athletes’ parents as it was on the athletes.
“A lot of times people are thinking about the kids being heartbroken,” Jeffers said, “but I don’t think some people realize how devastated the parents were that had supported our teams for four years and had done a lot of behind-the-scenes work with running the meets and coordinating different events for us. I think they were about as heartbroken as the kids were not to see the kids have a chance to finish their senior year and meet a few goals that they’d set out to try to accomplish. It’s really hard to describe that, because it was really weird.”
The abrupt ending of careers will be digested slowly, and perhaps never completely.
“The four that signed for college knew they had more seasons ahead of ‘em,” Jeffers said. “They knew that they were still gonna be able to continue their competitive running at the next level. But those other six seniors, you know, it was it for them. They might run road races, but their competitive running ended this spring. This was it for them. It was their swan song.”