Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series about Baker School Principal Mike Martello’s lessons learned as a Gator student-athlete and his vision for Baker's athletic program.
BAKER — As a former Gator student-athlete and coach, first-year Baker School principal Mike Martello quickly tells you that academics should be the first priority.
“When I was coaching I always emphasized that they call you student-athletes for a reason,” he said. “Student comes first because it’s what you do in the classroom that determines whether or not you get the privilege to be an athlete. And that’s exactly what I think it is: it’s a privilege to be an athlete.
“I hope I instill in (the athletes) the fact that you have to take care of your job as a student and then the reward is you are allowed to be an athlete.”
Grading the Gators
Martello understands the challenges associated with a small rural school athletic program.
Baker School has almost 1,400 students in kindergarten through 12th grades, but just 400 students are in the ninth through 12th grades. With that in mind, Martello takes a broader approach to grading.
“I look at it from two different strengths. I look at it from the strength of the program and from the athletic cycle we have to go through all the time,” he said. “I would say we are a B or A as far as the strength of our athletic program. We instituted soccer last year and there is going to be some transition this year.
“I guess the only question mark is boys basketball, as we have to hire a new coach.”
Martello is a little tougher in grading the Gators' athletic cycle
“In the athletic cycle, where we are right now, I would give us a C,” he said. “We are at the mercy of the athletic cycle at a small school. I would say we are on the upswing with some of the teams headed toward a B and we will continue on up to an A.”
Like Martello, several Baker coaches attended the school. Gator athletic director and head football coach Matt Brunson was a Martello teammate.
Martello looks forward to working closely with Brunson in shaping the Gator athletic program.
“I think there is a confidence and a trust issue that comes along with that (having gone to school together),” Martello said. “He and I have that confidence in each other that we are always going to do what’s right for the school and our athletic program.
“I applaud Matt for the way he has managed our athletic program the last few years. It truly is a juggling act. I’ve seen it now from both sides as a coach and now the principal and I think he’s done a wonderful job.”
As a K-12 school, with both middle school and high school athletic programs, there are a multitude of challenges a 6A or 7A school will not face.
From finding gym and field time for teams to practice to raising money for the sports, the challenges never end.
“The biggest challenge I think is this -- when you look at how much it cost to run a program,” Martello said. “Whether you look at it at Baker, Crestview or Choctaw, it cost the same amount to have three officials on the floor (in basketball) at Baker as it does at Choctaw. It cost Matt the same amount to have officials on the (football) field as it does someplace like Niceville.
“The field Matt plays on is the same size as Niceville’s field so there are maintenance issues and the cost of running a program is very similar. But on the opposite side of that our ability to raise those funds is much less. When you look at Crestview that has over (20,000) people that live there and many, many more businesses than Baker does, it makes fundraising much, and therefore support those programs, much harder.”
Martello believes one of the biggest challenges facing the Gator athletic program will be finding enough room for athletes to have space to train, practice and compete.
“We hope to upgrade some of our facilities around here,” he said. “We have been struggling for the past several years since we changed our middle school basketball program to play at the same time as our varsity program. We have one gym and yet we are an elementary, middle and high school and practice time and scheduling games make it very difficult.
“I would like to see an enlarged weight room. The more we get kids that play multiple sports, the bigger the room is going to have to be as we have more kids in the weight room at one time. It doesn’t matter what sport you are going to play, strength is a fundamental.”
Martello also would like to see the Gator baseball team, which now plays at the city recreation complex, have an on campus field one day.
“You look around our academic facilities right now, and it’s such a big campus, and it’s aging all the time,” he said. “There are so many projects that we could justify. But I would like to see in a long term plan for us to get a baseball facility on campus.”
A vision for Baker
Martello said his vision for the school is to continue maximizing academic and athletic efforts.
“We have great kids here at Baker School,” Martello said. “My vision for them is if we work as hard as we possibly can and play as hard as we possibly can, success will come from our hard work.
“Our kids just love to work, and I think that work ethic is going to pay off in the long run.”
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at email@example.com, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524.