By Rubin E. Grant
Josh Donaldson has had more than his share of ups and downs the past few weeks.
On Sept. 2, the Sunday after he returned from the Patriots’ season-opening meet in Memphis, his father, Dr. Steve Donaldson, died following a five-year battle with cancer.
The elder Donaldson, 66, was a professor and computer science program director at Samford University, where he also co-directed the computational biology program, taught in the University Fellows Honors program and co-founded the Samford Center for Science and Religion.
Before going to Memphis, coach Donaldson didn’t let his cross-country team know that his dad was dying. Only Patriots’ track and field coach Tom Esslinger knew.
“I let the team know after we got back from Memphis that he died,” Donaldson said.
The funeral was Sept. 6 at Dawson Baptist Church in Homewood. Donaldson and his family received an outpouring of support from his cross-country team.
“I was overwhelmed to have the athletes, their parents and the coaches support and love on us, even at the (funeral) service, the way they did,” Donaldson said.
Because of his father’s death, Donaldson didn’t travel with the team to the 18th Chickasaw Trails Invitational meet held at Oakville Indian Mounds Park.
Homewood senior Will Stone won the large-school division boys title at the Chickasaw meet with a winning time of 15:37.19 in the 5,000-meter race. Mountain Brook senior Hunter Harwell was second crossing the finish line, at 15:50.25. Both times were the fastest of the week for Alabama prep runners.
As a team, the Homewood boys finished third.
Donaldson, a science teacher, returned to the classroom last week
“Getting back to coaching and teaching gave me a sense of normalcy,” he said.
Last weekend, he had planned to take some of his runners to a meet near Raleigh, North Carolina, but it was cancelled because of Hurricane Florence.
The Patriots’ next meet will be the Scottsboro Invitational on Saturday. On Oct. 13, they will travel to Tallahassee, Florida, to compete in the Florida State Invitational.
This may be Donaldson’s first season as head coach, but it’s far from his first experience with Homewood.
Donaldson, 28, was a runner for the Patriots before graduating in 2008. For the past six years, he served as the Patriots’ primary assistant coach as Homewood won seven state cross-country titles.
He was elevated to head coach when former head coach Lars Porter accepted a coaching and teaching position in the Mountain Brook school system.
“It’s a different scenario after being with the team the last six years and working alongside coach Porter,” Donaldson said. “It’s been a great transition. I have a lot more say in the workouts and I have tremendous support from my assistant coaches.”
The assistants include Esslinger, Bryan Burgess and Kelly McNair, who mainly works with the female runners.
Donaldson inherited several talented and experienced runners, including Stone, a two-time Gatorade Alabama Runner of the Year who has won seven individual state titles during his career. He will be seeking his third consecutive state title.
“When you talk about Will, what is there not to say,” Donaldson said. “He’s a well-rounded student, a well-rounded person and a great runner.”
In the season-opening Brooks Memphis Twilight Classic, Stone finished second overall with a time of 15:32.85. The team finished in a tie for seventh.
Stone will have someone to push him throughout the season with the addition of Crawford Hope, a sophomore transfer from Scottsboro. Hope swept the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the Class 5A state outdoor track and field meet in May.
Several of the Patriots’ other runners are back, including Jackson Merrell, Jack Gray, Logan Justice and Carson Bedics. “We’re excited to see what everybody can do,” Donaldson said.
The Patriots’ boys have won six consecutive state championships. If they win the Class 6A title this fall, they will tie the state record for most consecutive boys cross-country titles. The Randolph School in Huntsville won seven consecutive championships from 2005-11.
Girls Trying to Climb
The Homewood girls team is trying to win its second title in three years.
The team features juniors Lainey Phelps and Celie Jackson, who helped the Patriots finish second in the state in 2017. Jackson, a two-time state champion in track, finished second at last year’s state cross-country meet.
Phelps, a seven-time state champion in cross-country and track, won the 2016 state cross-country title but did not run last fall.
At Memphis, Phelps finished fourth with a time of 18:50.76, helping the girls finish sixth.
“She’s looking strong and healthy,” Donaldson said.