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On the run: Phil Campbell teacher leads NW-SCC cross country

Franklin Living March-April 2023

As of November 2022, Patriot athletics are back in the running, so to speak – with the resurrection of a cross-country program at Northwest-Shoals Community College. Named head coach in January, Phil Campbell’s Mark Wells will be leading the new program.

Since the athletics relaunch began at NW-SCC, Patriot athletics director Taylor Franks and Dr. Timmy James, dean of academic affairs/athletics administrator, have been in discussions about what each next step should be for reinstating sports at the local college. The school began by announcing the return of softball and baseball in October 2021, naming coaches and beginning play in 2022. That sparked plenty of excitement among Patriot fans, who are now hungry to see NW-SCC’s athletics offerings grow – and Franks said “everything is on the table,” in time. 

“We wanted a sport down here at Phil Campbell. When we looked at everything that we want to bring back, cross country made the most sense for now,” said Franks, explaining budgets, resources and facilities are big factors when it comes to the school’s sports rollout. “With it being an outdoor sport, that made it a little easier … We were really excited when we announced it, and I thought it was well-received. Phil Campbell folks were excited, and the community was excited.”

According to NW-SCC, the Patriots last fielded a women’s cross-country team in 2000 and men’s team in 2008. 

“We’ve looked at golf and tennis, and of course we’re looking at volleyball and basketball,” Franks said. “For right now, cross country was the right fit, and it was the right time. But definitely, everything is on the table. We definitely want to give what the community wants.” Ideally volleyball will ultimately be based on the Phil Campbell campus as well, Franks said. Of course, that’s the future. The present, the current excitement, is cross country.

Wells said he was among those excited to see the news about the return of cross country, but he only had a small thought of applying for the coaching position himself. In his seventh year now at Phil Campbell High School – as special education teacher, junior high and varsity boys track coach and junior high boys basketball coach – Wells, 35, was born and raised in the community, graduating from Phil Campbell High in 2005. He attended NW-SCC for two years before transferring to the University of North Alabama to complete his bachelor’s degree in secondary education/physical education. He earned his master’s degree from the University of West Alabama in special education. He taught one year at Tharptown Elementary before making his way back to Phil Campbell. 

When someone told him the NW-SCC XC job had been posted, he decided to throw his proverbial hat in the ring. “Originally I didn’t even know whether I’d get an interview or not, to be honest,” Wells said. “I’ve been running for the past 15 years and I guess mostly concentrating on myself and training.” When NW-SCC offered him the job, “of course, I took it.” 

Wells said he had started to feel, more and more, the drive to inspire his same passion for running in others. It was this drive that had already prompted him to start a running club for Phil Campbell elementary students this past year. He said he hoped for maybe at least 10 students to show some interest. He was awed to have 50 sign up and 43 maintain their interest and involvement. Clearly, running is hot in Phil Campbell – and gaining ground. This year 110 students have signed for the co-ed, two-day-a-week after-school club.

Wells said he didn’t start running himself until after high school. One night at Valley Grove Baptist Church, where he was attending with then-girlfriend, now-wife Jamie, he was encouraged to give it a try by Joshua Aycock, who coordinates the Swampers 5K in Muscle Shoals – a Road Runners Club of America run.

“He came up to me and asked if I would run his race,” Wells said, remembering with a laugh that “I actually had to Google, at that time, what a 5K was.” Deciding to try it, he showed some natural ability, finishing the 5K in 22 minutes. “I was told, for not training and never running a 5K before, that was pretty good,” Wells said. “I got addicted after that. I started running all the time after that. I have no idea how many races I’ve run – it’s in the hundreds.”

From obstacle course races to road races to trail running, Wells has run all over the Southeast, often at Monte Sano in Huntsville. He became pretty competitive, finding himself rise first to top three in his age group and then top three overall at races of various lengths. His favorite road race he said, might still be his first – the Swampers 5K, to which he took eight members of his running club this past year; another 12 did the associated one-mile run. He also particularly enjoyed the Wild Things Trail Series this past summer at Monte Santo State Park; the Spartan Race obstacle run at Fort Campbell, crossing from Tennessee to Kentucky and back; and the Barbarian Challenge at Noccalula Falls Park.

“I can tell my knees and joints are starting to get older,” Wells said. “I’m hoping to take everything I’ve learned and try to pass it on to others … I’m very competitive, and I want us to do well and win races, but this first year it’s just about building the right foundation.”

Franks said the coaching position had a number of qualified candidates who looked good on paper, but Wells’ particular experience and background helped him shine above the rest. “Bringing back a sport, you need energy and enthusiasm and passion,” Franks said. “The running club illustrated his recruiting skills … When you’re looking at someone who can be relatable to student-athletes and get them excited about coming to run for your school, being a Patriot – that was a big factor for us in our hiring decision. We wanted somebody who was passionate about running and could help our student-athletes.”

XC practice can start Aug. 1, and races will be held this fall, so in the meantime, Wells is deep into the recruiting aspect of the job. Several incoming NW-SCC students have already expressed interest, and Wells has been communicating with high school coaches across the northwest and central Alabama areas to share what NW-SCC has to offer and see what prospects might be a good fit for the new program. He said he’s focused on attracting not only good runners but young men and women of character, who will be known for being good students as well as good teachers overall. The school is offering five scholarships each for men and women, with hopes to put seven on each team total. 

Of course, he’ll also continue cultivating his future talent with the elementary running club members – among them, his daughter Avery, a fifth-grader at PCES. “I’m getting older, and she’s getting faster,” Wells quipped. With his mother, Donna Wells, teaching special education and helping with the running club, and his wife Jamie – a professional artist who also works at Austin’s Shoes in Florence – teaching art class at PCES and also volunteering with the running club, Wells has a true family affair in place at Phil Campbell. 

“He has a passion for running, and he works great with the kids,” said Jamie. “He loves it. We’re always there to cheer him on.”

From 3-3:45 four days a week – Monday and Wednesday for third- and fourth-graders, Tuesday and Thursday for fourth- and fifth-graders – Wells can be found with his young running enthusiasts, logging miles and playing running games around the edge of the practice football field, inspiring and motivating that next generation of runners. That’s exactly what NW-SCC wants to see.

“We want to start with kids who are young, and we want them to have their Northwest-Shoals shirts on and say, ‘I want to do this,’” Franks said. “We want to be in the conversation. I think his passion and enthusiasm and being in the community … We felt like everything we saw and heard in talking to him, it made sense. We’re really excited.”

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