COLUMBIA -- In some ways, the sport of high school cross country in South Carolina has changed over the past decade or so; training technique has improved, venues are better suited to the sport, performance equipment is better and timing is more precise than ever, to name a few.
But, when you ask Spring Valley’s John Jones what’s different about cross country today, he’ll tell it’s pretty much the same sport it was when he first started coaching more than 30 years ago.
“I don’t think cross country has changed at all,” Jones recently told scrunners.com. “It is still a sport that challenges each runner with his own demons. You still must be self-disciplined to be successful and you still don’t have to be the best pure athlete to be the best. You can still be as good as you are willing to work.”
Jones, a 1973 graduate of West Point, is in his 33rd year as cross country and track coach, all of them at Spring Valley High. And, while the essence of cross country remains unchanged in Jones’ view, the program at the school has definitely been transformed.
“I came to SV in 1980 (and) the program was a joke,” he said. “There were about 8-9 runners and the main goal each day was to steal the shorts off the freshmen and run them up the flag pole.”
The boy’s team was 1-8 Jones’ first year, up modestly from 0-8 the year before. It improved to 3-6 his second year, then a combination of students buying into Jones’ system and a changing attitude toward the sport took Jones’ team to a different level.
“Year three we were 16-1, won the Region and placed third at State,” he said. Since then, the Vikings have won their region 17 times and placed 2nd nine times. Their average place finish at State since 1982 is 7.1, second best in 4A behind Spartanburg.
It’s probably no surprise that Jones, who was a sprinter and hurdler in high school and college, describes his style of coaching as “old-school.”
“The runners are not my friends. They have to earn respect,” he said, and there are no summers off.
“We start in May and work had all summer,” Jones said, but there are rewards for that effort such as trips to out-of-state meets, and more importantly “the personal pride of a job well done.
“The athletes should come away with an understanding of what hard work is, what it means to be a part of a team and the concept of self-discipline,” he said.
That conventional coaching style has paid off in an impressive list of individual successes. Three years ago, Jones put together an “All-Time Team” at Spring Valley from a list of student/athletes that had come through his program over the past 30 years. First on that list was Brian Raymond, a member of the class of 2004 who was individual state champion and led the Vikings boys to the state championship in 2003.
That title was the first – and so far only – one for the school in cross country. Jones and the team were honored for their achievement in February 2004 with a resolution read on the floor of the state House of Representatives.
In addition to Raymond, Jones coached three other athletes who would earn individual state champion honors: Dennis Humphries, Chris Woolfolk and Reid Wilson.
“I don’t thing any other coach in the state has had four different runners become state individual champions,” Jones said.
Some of his former students have returned to the sport in a variety of ways, including 2001 graduate and now assistant coach Joe Tomlin, who “gives back every day by helping with our distance runners in both cross and track."
Another alumnus, Mitch Uehling (class of 1995), is a former Vikings cross country captain who now owns a pizza restaurant near Sandhills.
“His generosity is felt by all the runners in the state,” Jones said.
As for this season, Jones said he’s pleased with the team’s effort, so far.
“We are healthy and running with confidence,” he said. The boys team placed first among state Class AAAA schools in the recent Wendy’s Invitational in Charlotte. It was the Vikings’ best team finish and best individual finish since that 2003 state title, Jones said.
He said the next week will be a good measure of where the team stands heading into the final few weeks of the season when it faces Lexington, Wade Hampton and Wando.
“We hope to win our region and we think we can compete with anyone for the state title,” he said.
AWARDS FOR JONES:
Region Coach of the Year – 32 times
SCTCCCA Coach of the Year – 6 times
SCACA Coach of the Year – 4 times
SCTCCCA Coaches Hall of Fame – 2005
SCACA All Sports Coaches Hall of Fame – 2007