Andy Warner's office at the Maryland State Department of Education building downtown seems awfully modest for the man who oversees the state's public high school interscholastic sports program — a system that includes 240 schools and more than 113,000 athletes.
Tucked into a cubicle with a small desk and a computer stand, Warner's tiny "corner office" is adorned only with a few photos. Family pictures on the desk include one of his young sons at a football game at Warner's alma mater, Hereford. Two large shots on the wall freeze action in state baseball and wrestling championships.
The office, however, fits the man.
After a full year on the job, Warner still considers it "humbling" to be the executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
Not a lot has changed since he took over last August when Ned Sparks retired after 34 years. Warner said that is by design.
"One of the main goals coming into the job — and I knew what I was getting into having worked under Ned for so many years — was to provide the same services our membership has always expected from us, and I really feel strongly that we were able to do so. I thought that was very important in such a transition year for us."
Warner, who spent nine years as assistant director of the MPSSAA, doesn't see it as his job to dictate where the future of Maryland public high school sports is headed. Mostly, he wants to drive the bus while administrators from around the state navigate.
"It's really the membership's association," said Warner, who works closely with the athletics supervisors in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. "Our programs are for schools by schools. We've been built that way, and I think that's the way we're going to continue to operate."
Mike Sye, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County, knows it's not easy to follow someone like Sparks who held the position for decades. When Sye took over in Baltimore County four years ago, he stepped in after Ron Belinko, who had been coordinator for 46 years.
"It's always hard taking over for someone who's been around for a long time, to come in and demand the respect of your peers when you've had a legend in front of you," Sye said. "He handled that exceptionally well."
Earl Hawkins, director of athletics in Prince George's County, said, "The focus has always been on the association, not on the executive director, and I think it's remained the same under Andy. He doesn't want to take credit for things even though he's responsible for making sure things go well. He wants the association to take all the credit."
Warner has an office staff of four but didn't have an assistant director until Jason Bursick, former athletic director at McDonough, came on board Jan. 6. Athletics administrators in counties throughout the state do much of the work on MPSSAA projects, including serving on committees and running state championships, so they had plenty of experience working with Warner while he was assistant director. They saw his strong work ethic and they already trusted him, Sye said.
"I also feel like he has some opinions and he has some things he would like to get accomplished," Sye said. "That's a side of him people didn't see because he was such a hard worker under Ned. He is low-key, but there is a fire inside of him. He wants to carve his own path."
One of Warner's main goals has been fostering the growth of coaches and athletes.
He debuted the MPSSAA Coaches Leadership Conference last month with sports-specific clinics as well as interactive workshops on such challenges as diet, conditioning, handling injuries, talking with parents, dealing with the media, and NCAA eligibility and compliance.
That conference builds on the Student-Athlete Leadership Conference, which will be held for the seventh time Aug. 4 at Gaithersburg High.
"We have probably the greatest character-building tool available to our high school student athletes and that's our interscholastic athletic programs," said Warner, who wants the coaches and students to share what they learned at the conferences with their peers at school.
"I'm a product of Maryland public schools. I played three sports at Hereford," Warner said. "I learned and developed different skills that I can look back on as I'm in my current job now. To be able to share that back with students and coaches in today's generation, I think, is something that's part of our overall educational mission as an athletic association."
Although his first year went smoothly, Warner pegs several challenges the MPSSAA will continue to face in the coming years, including the growth of nonschool sports, health and injuries such as concussions, retaining officials and finances.
Kimberly Dolch, who just finished a two-year run as president of the MPSSAA, said she believes Warner will continue to be proactive with all kinds of subjects.
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"I think he really wants to keep it so that if it's not broken, there's not a whole lot he wants to fix except just keep moving forward. For instance, we've worked on transgender information — that was really under Ned — and we were one of the first states to do the concussion [protocol]. I think he will continue to be on the cutting edge of those issues. He attends all the national meetings, brings back information, brings back things that are happening in other states, so I don't see a lot of difference in where Andy wants to go except just continue to put the student-athlete first and do what's best for them," said Dolch, the director of high schools for Carroll County and a former North Carroll principal.
No matter the challenges facing public high school sports, Warner believes they're a lasting institution and a vital part of the educational process — and he loves being a part of it.
"I have a strong belief that our high school programs will continue to exist for many generations. They just offer so much for so many people," he said.
"When you look back on some of the greatest athletes who have won so many awards and championships and they talk about their greatest thrill, it's representing their community, representing their high school team, being able to wear that uniform. You go out to the different schools and you see the 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year olds. What are they doing standing there hanging off of the fence? They're dreaming of donning that uniform one day."