Having been involved in education for much of his life, Mark McPherson knows every school year brings change. There are new students, new challenges and new faces.
McPherson, 58, added his name to those ranks in Campbell County in July, when he stepped into the athletic director job at Altavista in an uncertain world of high school sports.
“This is the newest thing I think I’ve seen in a school year,” McPherson said of the challenges facing education systems amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
McPherson, who counts Campbell as the sixth school division he’s worked in, admitted there was a level of anxiety he had to overcome, yet his new endeavor is “still exciting to me.”
Before making his way to Campbell, McPherson had been an administrator, teacher or coach in Montgomery, Craig, Charlotte, Grayson and Roanoke counties.
Originally from Craig County, McPherson lived all over the world, on multiple continents, as a military child before his family eventually settled back in Virginia. He embarked on a professional journey into sports in his 30s, initially becoming an assistant football coach for his brother before ascending through the ranks.
McPherson said that foray into coaching sparked his pursuit of higher education, and he eventually secured undergraduate and graduate degrees and a professional administration certificate.
The job at Altavista provides some level of familiarity to McPherson, who carries in the experience with and understanding of small school systems.
Unfamiliar to McPherson and athletic directors across the state and country, however, are the challenges that come with the 2020-21 school year, which will feature three condensed high school sports seasons starting in December under the Virginia High School League’s current plan.
Since he arrived on scene in Altavista, McPherson has met with coaches at the school and has worked to get to know the small community that holds tightly on to high school sports.
“I have definitely seen the pride in Altavista athletics, the pride of the town,” he said.
The new AD who takes over for Dean Hubbard — who retired after spending 25 years in the post at the school — has worked to ensure coaches and athletes are on board with extra safety precautions meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.
With the return of sports still a few months away, McPherson said his job is also “to anticipate needs,” a task he feels equipped to do given his background as a coach.
McPherson “has coached almost every sport you can imagine.” He described himself as a “lover of sports,” though he said football — a sport he coached at multiple schools — is his passion.
Knowing how a coach thinks, he said, helps him understand what coaches under him now at Altavista may need, and equips him to form relationships with both coaches and students.
“I think he’s really gonna do a great job,” Hubbard said of his successor, citing McPherson’s experience in public schools as the reason for his thinking. “I’ve been really impressed with him. … It’s been a smooth transition.”
McPherson’s hope, of course, is for student-athletes at the school to have as complete an athletic experience as possible this year.
“My mindset is that I’m approaching this season’s like it’s gonna happen,” he said.
“I’m a lover of sports, and I want sports to happen. It’s such a valuable experience for young people to have sports.”
Should Altavista athletes be able to keep the virus’ spread at bay and play sports in this “new normal” climate, McPherson said he has high expectations for his programs.
Given the Colonels’ success of the past — when athletes like Juan Thornhill helped the Altavista football and basketball programs to multiple state titles — and the track record of current coaches like Debra Spencer — who also is the owner of a pair of state trophies, and hundreds of wins, with the volleyball and girls basketball teams — McPherson anticipates a continued upward trajectory.
“We have great athletes here, hard working, and people buying into the program,” he said. “That means the community, administration and student-athletes.”
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