Of all the great female distance runners to come through Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, few can hold a candle to what Maria Large Wolfe accomplished in the early 1980s at Virginia High.
She was a five-time individual VHSL Group AA champion (1980 and 1981 in the 3,200 meters and cross country, and 1982 in the 1,600). As a major contributor to four team titles (1980 and 1981 cross country and outdoor track) and all-state four other times, Wolfe defined a dynasty of strong Bearcats runners.
In addition to her numerous regional and district titles, Wolfe ran to a sixth-place finish at the Kinney Cross Country Nationals (now the Foot Locker Championships) in 1980, traversing the old Balboa Park course in 17:49. She qualified for the Kinney Nationals three times (1979-81).
Her placing in the San Diego race is still the highest finish for a female runner from Southwest Virginia in the 41-year history of the event.
Wolfe’s high school personal bests of 4:59.0 for the 1,600, 10:38.7 for the 3,200 and 16:48.0 for 5 kilometers in cross country still rank among the area’s all-time great marks.
“The one thing I remember is all the high mileage that we did, like 80 to 100 miles, running every morning and every afternoon, but we had a blast doing it,” she said. “We’d run from the high school to Sugar Hollow 5 miles down Lee Highway, do timed miles and some hill repeats, then cool down back to the school for 5 miles. That was after doing 4 miles in the morning.”
“When Maria ran, it was just effortless,” then-coach Ron Helmer said. “She never put her hair up and when she ran, that long, blonde hair flowed behind her. It was pretty to watch as a coach because she was running so fast and she never got tired.”
NOT JUST MARIA
Under Helmer — who coached at Virginia High from 1974-82 and is now at the helm for Indiana — the Bearcats churned out talent left and right.
At one time, Virginia High had four eventual Kinney national qualifiers all on the same girls team: Wolfe, Nancy Rose, Laura Dannhardt and Elizabeth Hester in 1979.
“We all worked hard and respected each other,” Wolfe said. “When you looked at us, we were all a different range of body types. When we went to meets, other coaches would always say, ‘Get the girls in black!’ because we were always near the front and we wore all black.”
“Everyone was getting really good at the same time,” Helmer said. “We were attracting a lot of attention and I can remember some coaches meetings where there were people yelling at one another. Those were some great times and there were a lot of really good teams.”
The boys team wasn’t too shabby either. With names like Frankie Nunn, Brother Barker, Chris Pruett and Mark Corley, Virginia High won state team titles in cross country in 1979 and 1980 and finished as runner-up in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1982.
Nunn is one of just four male runners in Virginia ever to win at least three individual cross country titles.
In 1979, the Lady Bearcats were the defending outdoor track team champions but finished second to Harrisonburg by one point, 63-62.
Rose collected two state titles in the mile and 2-mile, and Wolfe took fifth and third, respectively, in the events.
“We had started the middle school program like a year or two ahead of that 1979 outdoor season and we could see that Maria was talented, but she had the right attitude of doing whatever we asked,” Helmer said. “She almost raced recklessly and she had this overwhelming desire to get to the front. Once she did, it was hard to catch her.”
Wolfe won her first outdoor state championship in the spring of ’80, beating teammate Rose.
“It was really exciting to beat Nancy at state,” she said. “It was scary at the same time because she was a senior and I was just a sophomore.”
The historic Sugar Hollow Park 3-mile course in Bristol, Virginia — originally designed by Helmer and then-John Battle coach Randy Smith — is one of the toughest courses in the area.
The 45-year-old course with its seemingly relentless amount of steep ups and downs will test any caliber of runner.
On one October day at the 1980 Region IV meet, Wolfe crossed the line in 16:58 to break the course record for female runners. Almost 40 years later, no one has come within six seconds of it.
Nunn also broke the course record on the same day, traversing it in 14:40. His time was bested by Marion’s Fleet Hower in 2001 (14:26).
“That was one of those perfect days that we had at the course that day and everyone ran crazy- fast times,” Helmer said.
“I always wanted to go out guns blazing, but Coach Helmer wanted to hold us back until the right time,” Wolfe said. “I don’t remember that race specifically, but Coach Helmer always set goals for us and he said that one of the goals he had for me was to beat my best time ever on the course and that’s what I did.”
CAPPING IT OFF
That season, Virginia High was poised to nab the first girls state cross country championship at the hilly Piedmont Community College 5K course in Charlottesville.
Virginia High scored 20 points, beating Blacksburg by a landslide margin of 105. The Lady Bearcats’ total remains the lowest score in the history of the girls state meet and the largest margin of victory.
Wolfe, Hester and Dannhardt swept the first three positions and Virginia High had all of its scorers in the top 10.
“There were so many people that followed that team and we had a lot of people drive up to Charlottesville to watch us run,” Helmer said. “Maria and Frankie each won the race and our boys and girls both won the team title, so we swept everything. I remember thinking that we better enjoy this while it lasts because it’s not going to happen too often.”
Wolfe qualified for the 1980 Kinney Nationals by winning the regional meet in Atlanta, and Hester, Dannhardt and Nunn joined her as qualifiers.
In sunny San Diego, Wolfe was mostly unknown. Her teammate Rose had placed 10th the year before in the first edition of the meet. Wolfe had also finished inside the top 20 as a sophomore.
“I absolutely loved the California course,” Wolfe said. “There were hills and I always loved hill training. It was comforting knowing that I had people there that I knew and had people to warm up with.
“I can still remember the race. I was running in the top three for most of the race and we kind of disappeared into this back part of the course and popped out again to where the coaches could see us. When we came out, Coach Helmer was yelling saying, ‘You better go or you’ll be mad!’ and that’s kind of how I ended up in sixth. I fell asleep on that back part and probably should’ve been closer to the front and I thought I could win the next year.”
Wolfe had her eyes set on some big prizes in her final go-round. Waiting for her was Piedmont’s ”Cardiac Hill.”
“What’s funny is when I coached at Monticello for a while, we trained on that course and I remember going back over it,” she said. “I really didn’t realize at the time how intense that hill was. That was another one of those races where everything clicked.”
Wolfe led from the gun and blazed the course in 16:48, which still stands as a Southwest Virginia all-time best mark. She finished a whopping 2:13 ahead of second place.
“I remember going back and looking at that and seeing that she would’ve finished in the top five of every boys team at the state meet that day, including ours,” Helmer said. “That was a hard course and she just destroyed it that day.”
At Kinney South, she finished fifth but headed to Orlando, Florida, instead of California for nationals where she finished 24th.
Then in the 1982 outdoor state meet, Wolfe surpassed another huge milestone: breaking the five-minute barrier.
“That was something that I had always wanted to do and doing it at the state meet made it that much better,” she said. “Coach Helmer was never one to exude much emotion, but when I broke five minutes, he started jumping up and down. I couldn’t help but be happy with him.”
For many years, Wolfe was the only female runner from either Southwest Virginia or Northeast Tennessee to dip under five minutes for 1,600 meters, and her state meet record stood until 1997.
ON THE PLAINS
Wolfe signed on with Auburn in 1982 after also receiving offers from Kentucky, North Carolina, Clemson and Arizona State.
“I still have this huge box of mail from all of the schools that recruited me back in the day,” she said. “There was one from Wisconsin or somewhere that I had never visited before and I was determined that I was going to go there at first because they had a really good team.
“I only took two visits, to Auburn and Virginia. Auburn just felt like a smaller school, geographically, and it felt more like home.”
Her college career was not nearly as successful, but she still maintains the honor of being the school’s first women’s cross country all-conference performer after finishing 11th in 1983.
“Our coach left after my freshman year and someone else came in that didn’t want to take as many risks as Coach Helmer did with us in high school,” Wolfe said. “I’m never one to complain, but I was running less in college than I was in high school.”
“The most important thing is that Maria got a high-quality education,” Helmer said. “Yes, her college career wasn’t as good as she thought it should have been, but she met some lifelong friends and I think met her husband there, too.”
“When I started coaching, that’s when I realized how good we really were,” Wolfe said. “I saw how lots of teams got bigger and better after I left. I really fueled off of that competition and I think that’s really what made us all so good.
“I can’t even get some of the boys that I’ve coached to run as fast as I did in high school,” she noted.
Wolfe has been coaching for 15 years and currently is in Savannah, Georgia. She has kept all of her training logs from back in the day when she would eclipse 2,500 miles in a year’s time.
“I’ve coached at seven different schools at all different levels, and Virginia has always felt a little bit different,” she said. “I think it’s because kids take a lot of pride and want to contribute to the history the state has in cross country and track. I’m proud to be a part of that history for sure.”