There were moments of frustration and pain and moments of joy. Then, when she looked across the court and saw her family sitting in the green stands at Nelson County High School, more emotions hit Vicki Crawford.
Though she made sure she didn’t get caught up in the thoughts that accompanied the gesture by her family — a regional tournament game was about to get underway, after all — Crawford, the longtime coach of the Governors volleyball team, briefly let herself realize the magnitude of that day last week.
Ahead of her final time coaching in the gym where she’s spent thousands of hours teaching Nelson County athletes, Crawford was reminded of the passion that has fueled her career, the pride she’s felt in seeing her teams accomplish great feats and the gratitude for the opportunity to lead for so many decades.
Then, as always, Crawford took up the mantle of intense leader, coaching her Governors to a sweep and the penultimate win of her career.
Two days later in the Region 2C semifinals, Crawford coached her last game. After 39 seasons as head coach of the Nelson program, she is retiring.
“I’m just overwhelmed by it all,” Crawford said last week. A little while after a game, she took a few minutes to reflect on her career, though she still hadn’t let herself dive deep into the highs and lows of her lengthy tenure in Nelson.
Crawford’s journey with the Governors started about 40 years ago. Initially she became an assistant before ascending to the title of head coach. Throughout her coaching career, she spent the hours before afternoon practices and bus rides to games as a teacher, first at the elementary level and then at the high school level. At NCHS, she’s taught health, PE and weightlifting.
Thousands of students have come through her classrooms over the years, but it’s on the volleyball court (and, for a short period, on the diamond, where she was a softball coach) that she’s made her name.
The coach has amassed more than 400 wins — an exact number hasn’t been determined just yet, Crawford explained, because she’s not big on keeping track of her own accomplishments.
“I don’t like a lot of press, things about me,” she said. “It’s about [the players].”
Still, the approximate win total puts her among the top five volleyball coaches all-time in the state.
Crawford and the Governors recorded their first win in program history in 1982 against Rustburg and built from there, qualifying for district tournaments in 1986 and ’87. Nelson posted more than 100 wins in the ’90s, including one especially memorable victory in the 1999-2000 school year: a district title.
“That was just so exciting,” Crawford said of that win, which is among the games that still stand out to her.
At the turn of the century, Crawford helped the Governors rise to prominence in the area volleyball ranks. The group capped a decade that included 179 victories with the first girls state title (Group A, Division 1) in school history in 2010.
“We were so competitive, beating really big teams and having just outstanding seasons,” Crawford said of the early 2000s.
That period of success and the championship are obvious moments of pride Crawford calls to mind when thinking about her career in Lovingston. But one team, more than any other she’s coached, represents the group Crawford is most proud of.
The 2013 squad, because of the emotional gauntlet it endured, is the team Crawford describes as bringing her the most pride.
Players on that team got to work days after their teammate, Alexis Murphy (whose remains were found recently), went missing. And all season long, those athletes heard and saw reminders as fans and opponents tried to show support.
“Prouder of that team than any because of what they had to do,” Crawford said.
Crawford guided that team and others, including this year’s, through months fraught with uncertainty.
In this, her final season, Crawford learned how to coach through a pandemic. The Governors were one of the last three area teams competing.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done here,” she said of the program, one she’s led the entire way.
Ask players and they’ll tell you how Crawford is responsible for much of the school’s athletic success.
“She’s definitely brought the volleyball program up and given us a good name,” said Hailea White, a senior on this year’s team.
White, the team’s go-to hitter, said her coach has imbued her with confidence. Crawford “knows what she’s talking about all the time,” said White, who understands, as a result, that when her coach is yelling, clapping or offering one of multiple facial expressions on the bench, she better tune in.
Crawford’s passion isn’t easily hidden, and she knows as much.
“I tell [people] all the time I’m competitive as crap,” Crawford said. “When you’re on the court, I expect you to give me 100 million percent.”
That’s probably why Crawford switched out her clipboards with an IPad.
“I broke a lot of clipboards,” she said.
White calls one of those occasions one of her favorite memories of her coach, and evidence of Crawford's love for the game.
White’s teammate Rachel Thompson has only played for Crawford one season. Quickly, though, the transfer from Charlottesville-based Miller School learned of how Crawford viewed her teams.
“She treats you like family,” Thompson said. “She treats you as one of her own.”
Thompson and thousands of others have been affected by Crawford’s knowledge of passion for the game — including Joey Crawford, her son.
Seeing his mom coach fueled his desire to become a coach also (he did so with the Amherst County varsity baseball team for seven years before taking an administration job with the division). His mom spending hours after school in the gym for practices and games, that’s all he’s ever known.
So when he and other members of their family showed up to support Crawford in her final home game, he, too, had to hold back the emotions. Tears welled up in his eyes as he spoke of her accomplishments and what she’s meant to Nelson County.
“Watching her being able to do it for this long,” Joey Crawford said, “is incredible.”