IHS remembers Hunter, awaits outdoor season

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Ithaca High School track and field was ready to roll into the outdoor season coming off a great winter. Six athletes went to states, and six school records were set in the process. However, COVID-19 has delayed the outdoor track season indefinitely.

At the helm of the Little Red is IHS alum and current football coach Clarence Welch. He looked back on what was a successful winter for the Little Red.

“With this indoor season, the kids really worked their butts off to accomplish what they accomplished,” Welch said. “It’s unfortunate to not have an indoor facility like most high schools in New York state. But given the facilities, the kids just did what they had to do to be successful.”

While Welch does not have a regimented training program for the athletes while they’re at home in between seasons, he is maintaining contact with his team.

“Kids have reached out to me personally, just through email, text message for those who do have my number, and I don’t normally give it out,” Welch said. “But given the circumstances, a few kids reached out, and we’ve just been chatting through text message and encouraging them to stay active given the guidelines and enjoy the time with their families.”

Being a former athlete himself, Welch knows how important senior year is. While COVID-19 has left the spring season up in the air, he is hoping for the best.

“It’s unfortunate,” Welch said. “Across the state and the country, these kids are missing out on their senior seasons. Being a kid that went to high school myself, being able to enjoy that last year with your friends and being able to perform in your own facilities is special. Hopefully, it does happen, but if it doesn’t, it’s one of those things you won’t ever forget.”

If there is an outdoor track season this year, Ithaca will be without assistant coach Gary Hunter, who tragically passed away following the state championships in a car accident. Welch has a special connection with him, having coached alongside, played for and lived across the street from coach Hunter, who was in his 25th year of coaching.

Welch reminisced on Hunter’s style and what made him a special coach.

“Coach Hunter had a very stern approach to coaching,” Welch said. “As the years went on, he most certainly was a big teddy bear. He comes across as a very hard individual, a no-nonsense guy, which is a product of the era that he competed in back in the late ’60s and the ’70s. But it didn’t matter if it was a jumper, a sprinter, a distance kid - he treated everybody the same. And for that, the kids respected him, and they responded to him.”

Throughout his athletic career at Ithaca, Welch learned from some excellent coaches, including recently inducted Section IV Hall of Famer Richard Bernstein. He discussed the lessons he learned from mentors like Bernstein and Hunter.

“They really enjoyed their time with us, teaching us and molding us to be good athletes and people,” Welch said. “[Coach Hunter] was more of a vocal guy, so to speak, so what I learned from him is to not sit back and be quiet, to speak up and fight for your athletes and fight for your team and your program and really just put them first.”

During his athletic days, coach Hunter was a standout in throwing events, setting school records in both shot put and discus. As the assistant coach for the track and field team, he built the next generation of great Ithaca athletes, sending a thrower to the state championships in 20 of 25 years, including Makayla Podufalski in the most recent indoor track season.

Welch discussed the transition from being one of the athletes that coach Hunter shaped, to having him on his track and field coaching staff.

“It was great,” Welch said. “It’s sometimes difficult for young coaches to adapt to older coaches who have been on staff for a long time, especially when they were your coach, and then to be their head coach. We all hit the ground running with it and he’s one of those, what my football coach would’ve said is a really good servant-leader. He’s an assistant, but he still led as if he was the head coach.”

Now, the track and field team will move on without one of its staples after an excellent career. Welch is hoping that the success from last season will carry into the possible outdoor season and excel in coach Hunter’s honor.

“Keep it going; keep it rolling,” Welch said. “We had a thrower. We had two jumpers. We had a few runners [go to states]. So, we’re just hoping that they would feed off of that energy and that success and do the same in the outdoor season.”

The six athletes were the most Ithaca has sent to states in the four years the indoor track and field program has been active. Welch hopes to carry on Hunter’s legacy and continue to build up the program to new heights.

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