By Richard Smith
Mark Ernster has not been on the Peoria sports radar for years, after the founding Liberty baseball coach left to work as the athletic director at Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain.
But last month he returned a couple miles down the road. Mr. Ernster has been hired as the Sunrise Mountain High School athletic director for 2017-18.
He said he and his wife were having early talks about returning to the Valley so their 4-year-old son could grow up with his cousins and attend Valley schools. But the Ernsters were not counting on returning to Phoenix until the Sunrise Mountain job opened up.
“I hadn’t pursued any jobs. But this was a great opportunity at a great school and I couldn’t pass it up,” Mr. Ernster said.
He will step in at the rival school for the baseball program he put on the map. After starring at Ironwood High and ASU and playing minor league baseball, Mr. Ernster took the reins at Liberty and led the Lions to a 4A-II state championship in 2010, the school’s first year with a senior class.
The Lions and Mustangs started to play more regularly and locked horns in Division II in 2012 and 2013. Though it all Mr. Ernster and longtime Sunrise Mountain baseball coach Eric Gardner remained friends and the newcomer sought out the advice of the veteran.
While Mr. Gardner said he will miss former athletic director Mark Faust, who left to teach at Mountain Ridge after four years as athletic director, he is happy to see a familiar face in the role.
“Mark Faust was irreplaceable to me. He was the best AD I’ve had at this school,” Mr. Gardner said. “But Ernster is a good dude. He and I have always had a good relationship.”
Mr. Ernster said he feels ready based on his four years at Bradshaw Mountain, where he tried to bring his experiences from the Liberty athletic program.
Looking at Sunrise Mountain, he said, the Mustangs have always been competitive across the board. One difference he noticed from earlier this decade is a much stronger football program.
And he knows the Mustangs will be a perennial contender on the diamond, be it softball or baseball.
“Eric and I were friends when we coached against each other. I look forward to being on his team,” Mr. Ernster said.
Mr. Gardner, for one, thinks it will be a smooth transition next year as Mr. Ernster returns to the district he grew up in and to the north Peoria neighborhood where his career took off.
“I’m always a really big fan of an AD who has been in the shoes of the coaches. Especially with Mark having been in this community. He knows the parents and the expectations we have here in this community.”