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He coached JF to 424 victories, 12 Seminole District titles and one Group AA state championship.
Photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson
Former Jefferson Forest baseball coach Jim Thacker has been selected to the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall oF Fame.
Photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson
Retiring Jefferson Forest coach Jim Thacker (left) receives a plaque recognizing his achievements in 28 years coaching baseball during the dedication of Thacker Field.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Every spring for nearly three decades, Jefferson Forest baseball coach Jim Thacker has given the same prediction on the Seminole District standings:
“Pick us third.”
Just as reliably, Thacker was more successful than that. In his 28 years as head coach, the Cavaliers went 424-207 and won one Group AA state championship.
That run came to an end last week as Thacker announced his retirement, effective immediately. He said he had decided last fall that he would probably call it quits when this season came to an end. Jefferson Forest lost to Brookville in Friday’s Seminole District third-place game and was eliminated from the postseason.
“My internal clock said it was time to go,” Thacker said.
The 54-year old has a reputation for being unflappable, but he was touched and caught off guard to discover that the school intended to rename its baseball field in his honor. The ceremony was before the last home game.
“I think he was really surprised,” said Jefferson Forest Assistant Principal Troy Doss, who spearheaded the ceremony and a new sign.
Thacker has given the Cavaliers baseball program stability not often seen in high school, but it’s a model he learned early. He played under renowned coach Jim Cutler at Liberty High. Cutler stands third on the VHSL all-time wins list with 513 victories. Thacker played college ball at Longwood, where coach Buddy Bolding retired this spring after 35 years and 953 victories with the Lancers.
Thacker had planned to play college baseball at Lynchburg College, but that didn’t work out. He had a tough first semester academically and did not join the baseball team in the spring.
The next year, he enrolled at the community college in Lynchburg to rehabilitate his grades and was subsequently accepted at Longwood. His teammates during those years included Glenvar baseball coach Billy Wells and Glenvar athletic director Richard McElwee, once the baseball coach at Bath County.
Thacker also went into public education right out of college. His family had some influence, as his mother was a teacher and his sister continues in education.
“It’s in the blood,” Thacker said.
He taught for two years at Altavista, where he was also the assistant baseball coach. The Colonels’ head coach at the time was Don Vaden, now the NBA director of officials.
In the 1984-85 school year, a teaching and baseball coaching job opened at Jefferson Forest. Thacker was hired and has been the head coach there 28 of the past 29 seasons. He took a one year hiatus to watch his sons Brennan and Graham, who played for him at Jefferson Forest, when they went on to be teammates at Roanoke College.
The Cavaliers’ coach that year was veteran assistant coach Ryan Gilleland, who is among Thacker’s best players. Gilleland, who was the career leader in games played, at-bats, RBIs, and second all-time in doubles and total bases when he completed his career at Virginia in 1998, has been named the new coach.
“He has taught me that there is more to being a head coach than just on the field instruction and coaching,” Gilleland said. “Fundraising, field maintenance, parent communication, out of season practices, etc., are much more complicated than I first realized. I definitely feel better prepared to be a head coach after playing and coaching for Coach Thacker.”
Gilleland’s experience underscores Thacker’s excellence as a teacher.
“He’s a players’ coach,” Doss said. “Still is.”
The assistant principal should know. Doss was a key member of the 1988 Cavaliers team that won the school’s first and only baseball state title. With ace pitcher Stanley Hurt putting together a stellar postseason, the Cavaliers had to play at powerful York (the title game was on home fields back in those days) on an oppressively steamy late spring day. Hurt was impressive, some key hits came through, and the Cavs won 5-0.
The following year, with many veterans back, Jefferson Forest returned to the championship and faced York in a rematch at Liberty University. York won 4-1.
The Cavaliers have won 12 regular season and seven tournament titles in the Seminole District, which year in and year out may be the toughest Group AA league in the state. There are also three Region III titles.
Thacker has also produced a steady of stream of outstanding players, many of whom went on to play college sports. Anthony Poindexter, the Virginia football All-American, was a Jefferson Forest baseball standout. Erik Heiligenstadt, the pitching ace of the Cavaliers 2010 state semifinalist team, now pitches at Gardner-Webb.
The baseball culture at Jefferson Forest hasn’t changed much and doesn’t figure to after Gilleland takes charge. Harold Drumheller has been the JV coach for more than 20 years.
“It’s about the relationships here,” Drumheller said.
Those relationships are established enough that no one expects Thacker will vanish from the scene. He vows he will not be intrusive, though.
“We’ll let him mow the grass and work on the field some,” Doss deadpanned.
It seems unlikely that Thacker could completely turn his back on the program after so many years. While he looked at other coaching jobs from time to time, he always concluded he couldn’t do better than Jefferson Forest. At one point, he looked into college coaching and went for a visit with the head coach at one of the state’s Division I programs.
Something that college coach said stuck with him:
“If I’m not doing something for this program 365 days of the year,” he said, “I think I’m slighting it.”
At the time, Thacker wasn’t sure he was ready to do that. But his future plans are not settled. He will continue to run a private driver’s education school, and he hasn’t ruled out the idea of coaching college baseball.
“I’m going to take a year off and after that, if something comes open at the college level, an assistant’s job, I might look into it,” he said. “I don’t think I want to be the lead dog, though.”
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