2019 Kentucky Super Preps

South Warren Athletic Director Chris Decker (left) is congratulated May 14, 2019, by speaker Ge’Monee Brown after Decker was named athletic director of the year at the Kentucky Super Preps awards program sponsored by the Daily News and presented by Med Center Health at SKyPAC.

Before Gavin Spurrier took a knee at Kroger Field to close out South Warren’s second football state championship, and before Faith Martin shot a 1-under 70 at CrossWinds Golf Course to lead the Spartans to a third region crown, and before Sam Gage and Trent Rice emptied a blue Powerade cooler over baseball coach Chris Gage at Nick Denes Field in celebration of the program’s fourth Region 4 title – before any hardware made its way back to 8140 Nashville Road in Bowling Green, for that matter – there was Chris Decker, with his head buried in a computer ordering equipment, creating schedules and attempting to build an athletic program from scratch for a yet-to-be-opened high school.

Fast forward a decade from the vision Decker – the first and only athletic director the school has known – and principal Terry Cook put together in late 2009 and early 2010 to find the trophy cases at South Warren High School far from empty.

Since the school opened, it has won team regional titles in baseball, boys’ soccer, softball, boys’ bowling, boys’ and girls’ golf, girls’ track and field, boys’ cross country and volleyball, as well as two state championships in football, along with numerous individual championships.

But when the next high school seasons get underway, it will be without Decker in his office or roaming around the school’s athletic facilities. Retirement brings an end to his time at South Warren, and Nick Lowe will be the next to take the reins of one of the state’s most successful athletic programs.

“I’m extremely happy with what’s going on with it. When we opened up, we had a plan on what we wanted to do,” Decker said. “... We had a plan, and we put good people in those spots and just kind of stayed out of the way, really, when we did that.”

Terry Cook South Warren

Former South Warren High School Principal Terry Cook raises the American flag Aug. 3, 2010, on the school's first day open.

A SHARED VISION

For nearly a year before the school even opened, Decker was at work with Cook – South Warren’s principal for its first three years. Decker was one of the first two people Cook hired after being named principal as students and staff were pulled from nearby Greenwood and Warren Central high schools.

“It was really a balancing act at that time. We got lucky,” Cook said. “Several people from Greenwood wanted to coach ... so we had a lot to choose from, really good people at that early start for the school.”

Decker had been around Bowling Green his entire life. He graduated from Warren East in 1987 after having played baseball and football for Kevin Wallace, who went on to become the winningest coach in Bowling Green football history, before moving to Louisville to coach at St. Xavier in 2018. Decker credits Wallace for getting him interested in the career he would later pursue after graduating from Western Kentucky University. He worked at Warren East while attending college and got a job at Drakes Creek Middle School after his time at Western Kentucky.

Decker started coaching baseball at Greenwood in 1995 and compiled a 296-186 record, four district crowns and one regional title when the South Warren athletic director position opened. He wasn’t looking to leave his position at the time, he says, but the opportunity to work with Cook – who he calls one of his best friends – and a career change were too great of an opportunity to pass up.

Cook coached football at Warren East in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, around the time Greenwood was opening. Because of their positions, he and Decker were able to see what did and didn’t work when Greenwood opened, and Cook credits their “philosophical closeness” as the main reason for hiring Decker as South Warren’s first athletic director.

Decker shared some of his hopes with the Daily News in December 2009. One of his goals at the time was to have athletes comfortable competing in more than one sport, and that the Spartans – they weren’t officially named that until about a week later – could develop rivalries with area schools “as long as the adults don’t mess it up.”

“A lot of it is just what you see as a vision,” Cook said. “I had known (Decker) for a while, plus I knew a little bit of his thoughts, but then when you interviewed other people, you could just see that he and I thought a lot alike in regards to the vision we saw athletics.”

That vision then started to take shape.

Decker was hired in late 2009 and went to work on building the athletic department for Bowling Green’s newest high school while finishing out his 17th year at his previous job. Tim Murley, the superintendent of Warren County Public Schools at the time, allowed Decker a substitute one day a week to work with Cook on putting together schedules and ordering equipment.

“You don’t think of things, but it goes from ordering uniforms, equipment, stuff to work on the fields, scoreboards and you haven’t even hired a person to run a program yet,” Cook said. “The board supported getting some of that stuff, obviously, but it’s deeper than just trying to have a day out there where you say, ‘OK, it’s tryout day.’ A lot of things happen in front for getting things in place.”

“That was fun,” Decker said, “but it was challenging also at the same time because it was a pretty big project.”

South Warren Baseball

South Warren celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Bowling Green Purples in the Region 4 Tournament championship game at Nick Denes Field, on Wednesday, May 30, 2012, in Bowling Green.

SPARTANS START WINNING

The next step was getting the right people in the right places. Decker and Cook did that, and the winning fell in line.

“People think that it’s just that you go find the best coaches. It’s not that simple,” South Warren football coach Brandon Smith said. “You’ve got to find coaches that work well together and people that are going to mesh well together, personalities that are going to mesh well together, and he’s always done that.”

Roughly three months after opening in August 2010, South Warren had its first state champion. Jared Skrabacz finished the KHSAA Class 2A State Cross Country Meet in a time of 16 minutes, 16 seconds to top the next-best finisher by 11 seconds.

Other programs saw winning seasons, but the football team didn’t play a varsity schedule in South Warren’s first year – a tough decision supported by the school board that Decker and Cook credit for the program’s success since.

“That wasn’t an easy thing to support because they were going to have parents say, ‘Well, you’re telling me you’re going to redistrict out there and they’re not even going to have varsity football?’ “ Cook said. “Well, it’s worked out. It worked out well.”

The football program played its first game Aug. 20, 2011, and was shut out 36-0 by Warren East. Mark Nelson was the head coach for the first three varsity seasons as the Spartans developed into a statewide power, while the program’s current head coach was an assistant fresh out of Western Kentucky “who’s done OK,” Cook jokes.

“Just a lot of things went right, but there was some things that were planned and some that were by chance, too,” Cook said. “You can’t say that you did them all with foresight, because you’re never going to foresee everything.”

Decker believes South Warren’s winning culture really began in the spring of 2012 – the second year the school was opened – with the baseball team. South Warren hired Chris Gage, then the girls’ golf coach at Greenwood, in April 2010 to coach the baseball team. Gage had known Decker since 1987 and, with both of their backgrounds in the sport, the new South Warren coach knew he’d have somebody to bounce ideas off of with Decker.

“He walked up to me when we had a class at Western and introduced himself because he had a friend that was on the baseball team and I was on the baseball team, and he was like, ‘Hey, do you know this guy?’ I haven’t been able to get rid of him since,” Gage joked.

“I’ve known him a long time, but he’s a great resource for us and it’s good having a guy that’s coached your sport and so he knows the different demands and he knows all the different coaches.”

The Spartans went 12-19 in 2011 and lost their first three games of 2012, before going on to finish the season 23-14 with a Region 4 title and an appearance in the state quarterfinals.

“To be honest with you, I think they may have set the growth for us,” Decker said. “Winning begets winning, obviously, and I think a lot of our programs saw that and said, ‘Hey, you know, baseball can do this. We can do it, too.’ “

South Warren Johnson Central

Above left: South Warren students celebrate Dec. 6, 2015, during their 36-6 win over Johnson Central in the Class 4A Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl championship at Houchens-Smith Stadium. Above right: South Warren celebrates its 4-3 victory over the Bowling Green Purples on May 30, 2012, in the Region 4 Tournament championship game at Nick Denes Field.

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS

Competing in a football-hungry region of the state, Smith – who has a closer relationship than most with Decker because they both worked as health and physical education teachers – led the Spartans to the Class 4A state title to cap off a perfect 15-0 season.

The original vision was working. South Warren’s success was far exceeding the five- and 10-year plans laid out by Decker and Cook prior to the school’s opening.

“I think the one thing that he does that is kind of rare and you just don’t see it a lot anymore, especially in high school athletics, is he kind of had a vision and a plan of how he wanted it to go. Not just football, but the whole athletic department of where he saw it going and how to get it there,” Smith said. “It just wasn’t blindly flying by the seat of his pants – whatever happens, happens. He’s always kind of had this idea of what he’s wanted it to look like and where he’s wanted to get it. He actively tries to make that happen.”

The Spartans claimed a second football state championship in 2018 – this time in 5A – and are now continually in contention.

Football is just one of several of the school’s athletic programs seeing success. Several teams – more than haven’t – have won region titles, and Smith credits Decker’s ability and laid-back approach to managing coaches for much of the winning across the board, “because nobody ever goes to the AD with compliments or solutions, they only go to them with complaints and demands and those type of things and he’s always handled that stuff really well,” Smith said.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone in town that doesn’t know Chris Decker and really doesn’t like Chris Decker. I just think he’s that kind of guy.”

It’s not just prominent programs like football, either. Girls’ golf, for example, is coming off a runner-up finish in the state tournament – the best mark in program history – and has won three-straight region titles.

“We don’t have a lot of participation, so therefore there’s not a lot of spectators coming out to watch, but he’s always been at every regional we’ve ever had, every state tournament appearance we’ve ever had, and if he can get away to come watch a tournament or a match on weekends or after school, he’s there doing that, too,” South Warren girls’ golf coach Eric Holeman said. “It just means a lot to the girls on our team and to the parents and coaches that we’re not looked at as a second-class sport.”

South Warren has continued to add programs, like bass fishing, esports and lacrosse, in recent years to create more opportunities for students to participate – something Decker is proud of.

The school hasn’t strayed from the original vision during its athletic success, either. Despite growing from a 3A to a 5A school, South Warren had 10 qualify this year for the KHSAA’s Triple Threat Award, given to athletes who compete at the varsity level in three sports or sport-activities.

“I think most of the credit – the only common denominators across the sports was the original culture set by Decker and Terry Cook ... and (principal Jenny) Hester’s continued on that,” Gage said. “Those two guys had a kind of vision, for sure – Decker and Cook – on what they wanted.”

The Spartans have also developed healthy rivalries with nearby opponents like Bowling Green, Greenwood and Franklin-Simpson. Decker, who was named Region 4 Athletic Director of the Year and was named one of five finalists for the Kentucky High School Athletic Directors Association Athletic Director of the Year award, credits the ability of nearby athletic directors to work together for that.

“I promise you, when we have our meetings, it’s all about what’s best for the kids and the athletic departments. There’s no dissension,” Decker said. “At times we disagree on stuff, but that’s normal. You know, what’s good for Cumberland County might not be good for South Warren. We’re just extremely lucky that this region has so many good athletic directors.”

Chris Decker

"Decker was here" is written on the wall at South Warren High School in recognition of Chris Decker's retirement as the school's athletic Director.

LEAVING A LEGACY

Decker’s final season at South Warren didn’t go according to plan. Spring sports were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he was still able to help send the seniors off by orchestrating a region-wide tribute where fields were lit up for 20 minutes and 20 seconds in honor of the Class of 2020.

“Decker was here” was added with black marker to a wall with others who had previously retired from South Warren on Thursday. He says he would like to stay involved in the state’s association of athletic directors, and while he hasn’t completely ruled out a return because “you never know what’s going to come up” and he still loves athletics, he doesn’t have any further plans to continue working at this point.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss it, but I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t ready for something different,” Decker said. “ ... I just love sports and I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve been at two great schools and I’ve never had to move. I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve done what I always wanted to do and never had to move.”

South Warren already has its next athletic director in place. Lowe was announced as Decker’s replacement May 5, after serving as the dean of students at the school in 2019-20 and working as Greenwood’s athletic director for a decade before that.

“He built a really good foundation. He did the hard part,” Lowe said. “He had to build a school from the ground up in essence with athletics, which is not an easy thing to do.”

It’s a foundation that began with a vision over a decade ago for a yet-to-be-opened high school, and a foundation that South Warren will now continue to try to build on without the man responsible for it.

“Sometimes it’s just a position that people fill – ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to do this and you’re going to do that also’ – but for him, that’s who he was. He was the athletic director there and everything worked around that,” Cook said. “I hope that they continue that same success and I’d like to think if they do continue that success, it will be because of the groundwork that he’s laid.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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