Looking back over the past five years, Baker can see that his school has come a long way.
No longer are the Knights’ athletic programs fledgling in Class AA. The school has been a part of Class AAAA for the past two years and, next season, will make yet another jump to join county rivals Creekview and Sequoyah in Class AAAAA.
But Baker won’t be around to see the school’s next leap, having announced that he would retire at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Even as Baker leaves, the effect that he and the coaches he’s brought into the school is evident. In the past four years, River Ridge has won eight region championships, with five teams finishing as region runners-up.
Even more impressive, River Ridge teams have made 21 appearances in state competitions. The volleyball team reached the Class AAAA state semifinals this season.
Principal Darrell Herring thought it was only fitting to nominate Baker as Athletic Director of the Year for Region 7AAAA. The voting committee agreed and Baker was soon named the top AD in the region.
But the honors didn’t stop there. Baker was also considered for the classification’s Athletic Director of the Year, and he won that award, too.
Baker was recognized Thursday by Cherokee County Board of Education, and Superintendent Frank Petruzielo during Thursday’s board meeting.
Herring praised the way Baker interacts with everyone involved with the school — from the student-athletes to their parents, as well as coaches, staff, volunteers and booster associations. Baker also served as the secretary for Region 7AAAA and excelled in working with the other athletic directors.
“He does a good job of leading other athletic directors and making decisions and coming up with programs and how to implement programs in the school,” Herring said. “He has been in the business for a while and he has just been looked up to this year as someone that has been good at giving answers from the rule books. He is just looked up to by the other region athletic directors, and we all nominated him and he got the award. Then, it was a good surprise when he got the state award.”
Herring said that when Petruzielo paired him with Baker, it was one of the best things that could have happened.
“That was the best decision in the world to start this high school,” Herring said. “He has proved a plethora of information for me. Mike was there for me, as well as for the school.”
Baker said he isn’t sure what it takes to be named the Athletic Director of the Year, but having good coaches and good athletes certainly doesn’t hurt.
“You know, coming out of Cherokee County and River Ridge the last five years, the quality of coaches and leadership and kids basically just shined a light on me,” Baker said. “This is the last hurrah for me. I’m kind of going out on top. It’s been a fun ride.”
Baker said he could not have accomplished what he did at River Ridge if not for the great support staff.
“Mr. Herring thinks the entire focus of education goes not only with academics, but with all the extracurricular clubs for the complete package,” Baker said. “That is one of the things that sold me with working with him. Our band program is really good. Our athletic program is really good and getting better and better. Leadership is always key.”
Baker began his coaching career in 1976 as the baseball coach at South Cobb High School in Austell. After two seasons there, Baker moved on to Pebblebrook, where he stayed until 1982 as baseball coach and defensive coordinator for the football team before serving one season as the Falcons’ head football coach in 1981.
Baker moved on to Brookhaven (Miss.) High School, where he was once more the baseball coach and defensive coordinator for the football team for two years.
In 1984, he returned to Georgia, taking a position as the offensive coordinator at Sprayberry, where he was also an assistant basketball coach. He remained there until 1992 before moving on to Lithia Springs, where he coached from 1992-98 and led the boys basketball team to a region championship and the state playoffs.
In 1998, Baker went to Woodstock, where he was the offensive coordinator and the girls basketball coach. After just three years, he took the position as athletic director at Cherokee.
In addition to his roles as a coach and administrator, Baker has also had the view as a father, with two daughters coming through Cherokee County schools. Jerrah Baker, a three-sport standout at Cherokee and Creekview, is now playing golf at West Georgia, while Jessica is a senior at River Ridge, where she plays softball and basketball.
Baker said his advice to the next athletic director is to keep building the program the way they see fit.
“I think that is the great thing about high school coaching and administrating,” Baker said. “You get to move school to school and you get to bring in fresh concepts. I think that’s really neat about it all.”