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Exploits of Caldwell & Co. gave North reason to cheer

Tanner Cook • May 10, 2020 at 10:45 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series called “BackTrack: Exploring Lost Track and Field Legends,” which looks at past outstanding performers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

A telling sign of a championship-caliber team in any sport is having a close-knit group.

In the early 1990s, a group of five boys from Sullivan North was about as close as could be, and those runners produced some of the best championship performances in the history of the school.

One of the team’s unquestioned leaders was 1993 graduate Mark Caldwell. He recognized how good the team could be and how golden those four or five years were for the Golden Raiders.

“One of the really special things about that group was that we all pushed each other and, at a school like North, we had just enough guys to get by,” Caldwell said. “Myself, Jake Doutt, Michael Vaughn, Phil Parker and John Ryan were a really close group of guys.”

Under the direction of Dave Piercy, the Golden Raiders were the 1991 Class AAA runners-up in the cross country team competition after finishing a mere seven seconds behind champion Oak Ridge in an era in which the Wildcats were dominant in both cross country and track.

Caldwell won the individual state cross country championship in 1992, blitzing the newer 3-mile Percy Warner Park course in 15:04. In the spring of 1993, he also ran the anchor leg on the 4x800-meter relay team that won the state championship with a time of 8:03.

“I don’t think any of us would have been as good as we were without the others,” he said.

TRAINING AT NORTH

Caldwell said most of the guys on the team were about the same in terms of stature and build — scrawny and slender — but all had a strong kick.

“We were not the most intimidating team coming off of the bus when we arrived at track meets, I can tell you that much,” he said.

Caldwell noted that the group had an unusual way of getting in two runs per day, but they made it work.

“We actually all had a paper route delivering the Kingsport Times News,” he said. “We’d all get up at like 4:30 in the morning, pick up the papers and run our routes that were meant to be driven. I had probably a 4-mile route that I did all through high school and it was a way to get paid because having a job after school when you did track and cross country was almost impossible.”

MURFREESBORO, NOVEMBER 1992

“I knew going into the state meet that I had a better kick than anyone else,” Caldwell said. “I sort of knew my competition and there was one kid from Gallatin that was supposed to be the main guy.

“I remember (then-Times News reporter) Pat Kenney was talking to the kid’s parents and asked him if he had any sort of kick. The parents responded, ‘We don’t really know. He’s never had to use it.’ Pat responded, ‘Your kid is beat,’ ” Caldwell said.

“And that was even before the race started.”

When the race did start, Caldwell and Gallatin’s Matt Harber had left the rest of the field by the halfway point — and Caldwell had Harber right where he wanted him. In the final 600 meters, he flew by and won the title by 12 seconds.

“That was always my strategy,” Caldwell noted. “I wanted someone else to lead and then I would just sit on their shoulder and wait until about 600 meters to go and then just bury them.

“Funny story is that Tony Cosey (Knox Central) had set the course record on that particular layout just a year before in 15:01. I didn’t realize how close I was at the time and I said afterwards that it would’ve been pretty easy to break. I was just racing for the win that day.”

North placed four runners in the top 25 that day, but its usual fifth runner had become sick the night before and had a subpar race.

“My younger brother was on the team that year and he ended up being the fifth runner that day when he usually wasn’t,” Caldwell said. “We thought that 1992 was going to be the year after we had finished runner-up in ’91. The younger guys the year before really hadn’t come into their own and we all just had good days in 1991.”

A LITTLE REDEMPTION

“We all loved track because we were all really small guys that loved to race,” Caldwell said.

The 1993 outdoor track season was a magical one for the Raiders, one in which many memorable moments ultimately culminated in the 4x800 state title.

“There was a meet at Dobyns-Bennett that we went to and Piercy kind of gave us the meet off from the distance races and we ran a 4x200 relay,” he said. “We were running against teams like D-B, Science Hill, Morristown West and everyone’s sprint teams as distance runners.

“I remember Jake Doutt was the third leg and Coach (Bob) Bingham asked him if he wanted to use the international exchange zone lines. Jake, being Jake, just said, ‘Coach, you just tell me where the lines are that I need to get the baton and I’ll use those.’ We ended up winning that race and qualified the 4x200 team to run in the Times News Relays with that time.”

As noted by some local track writers at the time, North had an unusual style of using blind handoffs in distance relays like the 4x800.

“I think that really started at a meet we went to in Knoxville,” Caldwell said. “We were sitting under the bleachers and there was this 4x100 team practicing blind handoffs and they were in rhythm and made it look really easy. Well, they went out and smoked everyone at the meet that day and we decided that we would give it a try.”

At the state meet in May, the Raiders chopped some 12 seconds off their season best and won easily, crossing five seconds ahead of the runners-up.

“We never really stacked the 4x800 during the season,” he said. “John Ryan was our slowest leg and Michael and I were the final two legs. John ended up running a great race as the second leg, but we were still like 50 or 60 meters behind the lead with three laps to go. Michael started to reel everyone in and then I really didn’t have to run all that hard at the end because we had caught everyone. Everyone just had a great race that day and everything came together.”

DOUTT’S BIGGEST FAN

Despite being separated by a year in school, Caldwell and Doutt were almost as close as brothers.

“Jake and I were extremely close friends,” he said. “There was no animosity between us and I was truly his biggest fan my senior year. I drove down to Nashville during his senior year of cross country to watch him get runner-up in 1993.”

Doutt finished the 3-mile course at Percy Warner in 15:17 that day, losing to Houston’s Doug Ellington by 13 seconds.

AT TENNESSEE TECH

Caldwell’s stellar senior season helped him earn a full scholarship to Tennessee Tech, where he had a successful career.

“After I won the state cross country title, there was an exciting two-week period for me,” he said. “The Tennessee Tech coach called and offered me a full scholarship, but he said it may not be there at the end of the week if I didn’t commit right then. I knew I wanted to be an engineer and they were on my shortlist. I had visits scheduled for Tennessee and Virginia Tech later on, but never got to take them because I ended up signing with Tennessee Tech.

“I only had to pay four dollars the entire time I was there and that was paying for my post office box all four years.”

Caldwell improved on his cross country times, and his freshman year wound up being his best. He finished eighth overall in the 1993 Ohio Valley Conference championships running a 26:24 for 8K, but was the first American across the line.

“We did a lot of mileage and that was something that I didn’t do a lot of in high school,” he said. “Even though I didn’t really improve much after my freshman year, college was still a blast.

“I didn’t get to run much my senior season, unfortunately,” said Caldwell, whose sister Mary Robbin was at Tennessee Tech with him as a member of the track team. “I had done a co-op and when I was having my physical done, they discovered something was wrong with my heart. It wasn’t life-threatening or anything, but I did have to stop running because they wouldn’t clear me medically.

“It ended up being a blessing in disguise because I was taking some hard engineering classes at the time and I was able to devote all of my time to that.”

A COMMUNITY FEELING

Caldwell said the sense of community across Bloomingdale, Lynn Garden and the rest of the North zone mirrored the closeness of the cross country team during those years.

“It always felt like there was an ‘us against the world’ mentality when we ran in any race because being at North, we didn’t have all the resources that D-B or some of the other schools had,” Caldwell said. “I really enjoyed my time at North and being with a group of guys like we had just made it that much better.”

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