Domino Effect: Windermere High athletic director hiring leads to changes throughout area -- Observer Preps

The hiring of Fred Priest as athletic director of Windermere High School, which will open next fall, has set off a chain reaction within the high school athletics community in West Orange County.

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  • | 10:45 a.m. December 16, 2016
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It started with the need for a relief high school to ease overcrowding at West Orange.

That school, since named Windermere High, hired a principal: Doug Guthrie.

Coming from Apopka High School, Guthrie ultimately brought a familiar face along with him when hiring an athletic director to lead the sports programs for the Wolverines. Fred Priest, who has been at Apopka High with Guthrie for the past five-and-one-half years, is the first athletic director at Windermere High.

The hiring of Priest has led to a domino effect of sorts over the past month. 

With Priest leaving Apopka High, that opening has been filled by Dr. Phillips Athletic Director Russell Wambles. That created an opening at Dr. Phillips, which has been filled by Steve McHale, the current athletic director at Ocoee High. Finally, Ocoee’s assistant athletic director, Scott Howell, has been promoted to lead the Knights’ sports programs on an interim basis.

For Wambles and McHale, the moves entail returning to schools they had worked at in the past: Wambles was the athletic director at Apopka for six years before he went to Dr. Phillips, and McHale was at Dr. Phillips as an assistant athletic director before coming to Ocoee.

Although all four have begun to assume duties at their new posts, hirings are effective Jan. 1, 2017. We caught up with each to reflect on their respective old jobs and discuss what awaits at their new posts.

Domino One: Windermere High hires Fred Priest

About Fred: Priest has been at Apopka for the past five-and-one-half years, before which he was at Lake Nona, where he was an assistant athletic director when the school opened. The veteran administrator has worked for four decades in the field, in states including Georgia, Colorado and Kansas.

Blue Darter dynasty: Priest’s years at Apopka were highlighted by some impressive accomplishments for the Blue Darters. The football team won two state championships — in 2012 and in 2014 — and finished as state runner-up in 2013. 

The boys bowling team won four consecutive state championships and a national title. 

But Priest said the success on the field has been more the result of a culture among the coaches on campus than anything he did as athletic director. 

“I’ve got a group of coaches that most of them were already here when I got here,” he said. “I didn’t do a lot of changes — when Russell left, they had a good thing going. It’s been fun for me to be on that ride.”

Priest also said he has enjoyed the unique culture of high school sports in Apopka.

“There’s nothing like a small-town atmosphere, especially when you’re talking about athletics,” Priest said. “This community is that way.”

Starting from scratch: Priest already has hired a football coach for Windermere High — former Freedom High assistant Greg Miller — and said many of his responsibilities up front will involve more hirings (he is focused on filling out his fall sport positions currently) and ordering equipment.

As he goes about his hiring, Priest said it will be important to find a certain type of coach for each sport: particularly, patient coaches with vision.

“You need coaches that understand what it takes to build something,” Priest said. “They need to understand that it takes some time to build.”


Domino Two: Russell Wambles returns to Apopka

About Russell: Wambles has been the athletic director at Dr. Phillips for the past five-and-one-half years. Before that, he served in the same capacity at Apopka and other schools. He is an alumnus of Apopka where he played several sports.

Panther pride: As is common knowledge to most familiar with high-school sports in Central Florida, Dr. Phillips excels in nearly every sport for which it fields a team. Wambles said he is most proud of the way the Panthers did things and having well-rounded athletes.

“I’m most proud of the fact that I feel like we had a good name — our coaches and our players played hard, but they acted right,” Wambles said. “Sportsmanship, academics and success on the fields and courts — having a combination of those three is rare.”

On the field, Wambles particularly enjoyed the run of the girls basketball team in which it won consecutive state championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

“It was a pretty amazing thing to watch,” Wambles said. “Every kid on that team was just a top-notch kid and a top-notch student.”

Homecoming: Although Wambles said his time at DPHS was awesome and that it made him a better athletic director, the opportunity to return to his alma mater was tough to pass.

“At the end of the day, this is home,” Wambles said. “You only have so many opportunities to go home.”

As far as the to-do list he will inherit, there is an opening for a girls lacrosse coach at Apopka and assisting football coach Rick Darlington in putting together a schedule — a tough task, given how few teams are eager to play the powerhouse program.


Domino Three: Steve McHale returns to Dr. Phillips

About Steve: McHale, who served in the U.S. Marines before his education career, was an assistant athletic director at Dr. Phillips before working for three years at Ocoee. Prior to that, he worked at Colonial.

Leaving his mark: McHale’s time at Ocoee was highlighted by growth and improvement in several areas: on the field and off. Most notably, the football team has posted consecutive winning seasons, beat West Orange for the first time since 2009 and won its first-ever district title — an accomplishment made possible by McHale’s hiring of Ben Bullock to coach the program.  

Off the field, McHale said the program has improved its focus on helping its athletes beyond their playing days on campus.

“If you look at the overall package from Day One when we came aboard, we established a goal to make the best possible options for kids when they get out of high school — a lot of coaches jumped on board with the same vision and went with it,” McHale said.

Back to DP: After getting an opportunity to leave his mark on a younger school such as Ocoee, an environment he stresses was a tough decision to leave, McHale’s return to Dr. Phillips will mean running a program with significantly more tradition and things already in place.

“We’re at a good transition stage where things have been established — it’s a matter of just jumping on board and just growing it and developing things that need to continue to develop,” McHale said. “Coming from Dr. Phillips (previously) really helps out.”


Domino Four: Scott Howell promoted at Ocoee

About Scott: Howell’s first job out of college was at Colonial, where he coached baseball and softball. He came to Ocoee High three years ago and for the past two years has been an assistant athletic director under McHale.

Carrying the baton: Howell was promoted on an interim basis and the decision will be reassessed at the end of the school year, with the option that he may be hired on permanently. In the meantime, Howell wants to keep things headed in the right direction.

“Everything, athletically, is really moving in a positive direction … I don’t want to disrupt that for this year,” he said. “I’ve seen (things improve by) leaps and bounds — and not just from the standpoint of us winning a district championship in football. ... You get that sense of pride from the kids: ‘This is our school.’”

Howell said he has enjoyed watching the direction in which McHale steered the school’s athletic programs and that he is excited to build upon that.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill, there’s no doubt,” Howell said. “(McHale) set the bar very high.”


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