Helena’s Mark Sanders wins Coach of the Year in first varsity season

Published 5:00 pm Monday, June 3, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

For Helena varsity softball coach Mark Sanders, it’s been a long and winding road to get to where he is now.

After building two middle school softball programs from the ground up, first at Riverchase Middle School in 2001 and then at Helena Middle School in 2009, Sanders had seen years of success with both schools and felt perfectly content with where he was in his 23-year coaching career.

That long road doesn’t even factor in Sanders’ literal long journey every morning from Jacksonville to the place that has become another home to him in Helena.

But when an opportunity called to take the reins of Helena High School’s varsity softball program, he crossed Hillsboro Parkway and climbed the hill into a new world of opportunities.

“I’ve been with this same community for over 25 years coaching softball and never really thought that I would be here in this position,” Sanders said after Helena won regionals. “I was happy as a middle school coach and the Lord just worked it out for me to move up. I live two hours away, but I still feel like Helena’s home for me and it’s part of my life. I always see myself being a Husky.”

While the road to becoming the varsity softball coach was long, it didn’t take him long to find success at the high school level. He won his first game, and then his first 10 games. Soon enough, the Helena Huskies found themselves back where they were a year ago: the state tournament.

Sanders is the 2024 Shelby County Coach of the Year after making the move from middle school to varsity softball without missing a beat and orchestrating a special season in the process.

Sanders entered the offseason with expectations after taking over a program that had just reached the state tournament for the fourth straight season.

While the foundation laid by departing coach Scott Lowery, now at Chelsea, was solid, Sanders and his assistant coaches Bruce Howland and Madeline Porter aimed to continue that growth on and off the field by focusing on fundamentals and developing leadership skills.

Once February came around, Sanders saw immediate returns on that offseason investment as the Huskies not only won their first 10 games of the season but kept winning against some of the top teams in the state across all classifications.

With two wins against Spain Park and victories over eventual state tournament teams Hoover and Curry, Helena rose up the ranks of Class 6A and eventually ended the season as the No. 1 team in the media rankings for the final two weeks.

That set the stage for the Huskies to win six straight games on the road to the state championship, including two wins over Pelham to win the area title and a 3-0 record at regionals to reach 40 wins on the season.

While Helena ultimately exited the state tournament after two games, Sanders was proud of what his team accomplished across their 40-9 season.

“We’re just exceptionally proud of our kids,” Helena coach Mark Sanders said after the state tournament. “We had a great season. These kids won 40 games this year. We had great senior leadership and these kids put in the work day in and day out. The coaches were incredible. Our admin team at school’s been really supportive. We’re just really full of gratitude for the opportunity to be here. It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but we were really excited for this opportunity.”

While Sanders was grateful for any success that came Helena’s way this year, he was most grateful for another chance to take the field with the players he coached when they were in middle school, especially the seniors who couldn’t compete for a championship during their eighth-grade year in spring 2020.

Those relationships were something he hoped he and his players would remember in the years to come.

“I hope to remember just being a part of their lives,” Sanders said as the season ended. “What they’re going to remember most is the healthy relationships that they built with each other while playing softball, and I think that’s what’s important.”

The best coaches are often marked by their ability to both coach to success on the field and prepare their players for life off the field. Time and again, Sanders showed that he was more than capable of maintaining that balance.

2024 was a year full of incredible coaching displays from Kevin Todd guiding Thompson to the No. 1 spot in the Class 7A rankings once again and another trip to Oxford, Allyson Ritenour leading Spain Park back to the state tournament out of elimination situations in the area and regional tournaments and Ashley Blankenship putting on another great first-year performance with Calera by winning an area title and getting a win away from state.

However, Sanders set himself apart by building on his life’s work at the middle school level with an incredible season on and off the field.

His journey may not be over yet, but another mile marker can be added to the road: 2024 Shelby County Coach of the Year.