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Darnell laid foundation for future title teams at Boone

Tanner Cook • Jun 14, 2020 at 10:15 AM

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

GRAY — The distance running tradition at Daniel Boone is one of the strongest in the area for a school that has barely been open for 50 years.

Since its inception, there have been only three head coaches for Boone’s boys cross country program: Karl Winkle, George Moody and Len Jeffers.

The Trailblazers reached the pinnacle of success in 1981, winning the school’s first state cross country championship, but the foundation was laid a few years before that. One of the key builders of the foundation was Tim Darnell, who graduated the year before but still had a strong connection to the program.

As a senior, Darnell led Boone to its highest team finish at the time (third) and was clocked at 14:56.0 on the old Percy Warner Park 3-mile course in Nashville. His time garnered fifth place overall, all-state honors and a school record.

He was also runner-up at the Trailblazer Invitational, which the ’Blazers won for the first time, and at the regional meet.

Under Winkle’s watch, Darnell became a threat to win any of the area’s longer distance races whether run on grass, rubber or the road. He recorded another all-state finish in the outdoor track meet — finishing fourth in the 1 mile (4:21.7) — and he was the State of Franklin Track Club “King of the Road” champion.

“To know that I had some part in helping build the team to win the state championship the next year was fulfilling,” Darnell said. “I really didn’t realize it at the time, but a few years ago when I went down to watch them win, a bunch of the guys came up to me and said that I really helped get it started.”

Said Jeffers, his former teammate and now Boone’s coach: “Tim was like a hero to us and he was an awesome teammate.”

WINKLE’S INFLUENCE

When discussing Daniel Boone cross country, most folks who are familiar with the program will say that if it hadn’t been for Winkle, the program never would have gotten off the ground. And his influence on not just his own program, but the entire distance running community is felt to this day.

Winkle laid out the Trailblazer course, which has served as the host to the regional meet every year since 1972 and has had some of the best races in the region play out along its storied path.

“I played baseball my fresh- man year and someone saw me running on the track one day and said I should go out for cross country,” Darnell said. “Of course when they got me out there, they knew I wasn’t going back to baseball.

“The program was really just starting up. Coach Winkle had had some good individual runners before, but we were laying the groundwork for a good team.”

MOVING UP THE RANKS

Darnell was not the first all-state cross country runner for the Trailblazers. That honor belongs to Danny Mitchell, thanks to his sixth-place finish (15:21) in 1974.

His junior season in 1979, Darnell barely missed top 10 honors — finishing 12th — but he had run well and had one more season to go.

The next year featured arguably one of the most loaded seasons in terms of individual talent that the area has ever seen.

Jim Ailshie was a senior at Dobyns-Bennett and Walter Deneen was a star in the making at Science Hill as a sophomore.

Other prominent figures in the region at the time included Kendall Bryant of Morristown West, Mike O’Neill of D-B and Roger Trivette of Hampton.

“I knew that Jim was going to be the one up front and that’s where I wanted to be,” Darnell said.

DEFENDING HOME TURF

The Trailblazer Invitational was entering its eighth year of existence in the fall of 1980 and the home team had yet to win the boys title.

On Oct. 9, Boone changed that narrative and won the meet in convincing style, compiling 67 points to runner-up D-B’s 81. This came after the Trailblazers had finished near the back of the pack in the Kingsport Invitational the weekend before.

“I was pleasantly surprised with their performance,” Winkle told then-Times News sports editor Ron Bliss. “It gave our boys a lot of confidence. We ran against some of the best cross country teams in East Tennessee today.”

Darnell garnered runner-up honors to Ailshie, traversing the course in 16:12.1. Jim Guimond finished a surprising eighth after having been sick and not raced in three weeks.

“That was a very special day and it was exciting to win our home meet,” Jeffers said. “It kind of woke us up to the fact that we could do pretty well.

“Coach Winkle always told us that we were good, but we just needed to believe in ourselves a little bit more.”

In the regional meet on Oct. 23, Boone again defended home turf, winning with 47 points to D-B’s 54. The individual finishes told the same story: Ailshie was first in 15:50.8 and Darnell was runner-up in 15:57.0.

“I think winning the home meet for the first time as a team was really a shot in the arm to get us ready for the postseason,” Darnell said.

PAYBACK

In Nashville the next weekend for the state meet, Darnell showed up big time for the ’Blazers in his final high school cross country race.

Running with the leaders for most of the way, Darnell wound up fifth. Guimond was also an all-state finisher after placing 15th.

Ailshie finished a disappointing 10th, marking the only time during Darnell’s senior year that he took down the great Kingsport runner.

“That was a real thrill to beat Jim at state,” Darnell said. “We had gone back and forth a few times over the previous two years.”

Boone, with a team total of 130 points, was third behind Oak Ridge (115) and Frayser of Memphis (116).

“We were pretty excited, but we really thought we had a chance to win,” Darnell said. “When we ended up third, Coach Winkle told us that he was so happy for us and that he had never even had a team make it to the state meet before.”

OVER THE MOUNTAIN

After the state outdoor meet, Darnell signed on with Appalachian State — receiving a modest $1,400 scholarship to run for the Mountaineers.

“I actually signed with App State kind of late, maybe in either June or July,” he said. “I come from a family of five and I was getting recruited by a lot of private schools to come run, but I thought Appalachian was the best place.

“They offered me three-fourths of an athletic scholarship and an academic. Turns out, the financial situation wasn’t the best. I went from running about 40 (miles) a week to running over 100 and every workout feeling like a race. I got a little homesick, too.”

He also put the finishing touches on winning the inaugural SFTC “King of the Road” title in ’81 and even got his family out to run with him on several occasions.

“Getting my family out and running was pretty cool,” Darnell said. “There aren’t too many sports in which you can get the whole family involved.”

ONE YEAR LATER

Winkle finally got his long-awaited state championship in the fall of 1981. The ’Blazers scored 95 points and distanced themselves from runner-up Dickson County by 14.

“It’s like no other feeling,” Winkle told the Times News. “It’s 25 years of coaching work all rolled up in a neat little bundle. But I told the kids if there was one thing I was going to tell the newspapers, it was that I thanked God for the opportunity to work with this group.

“They all dedicated themselves at the end of last year’s meet to winning the year.”

Said Jeffers: “Tim really laid the foundation for that team the next year to win state in 1981. He set a great example for us younger guys and he was truly one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet.”