As a Patapsco High athlete, and as a coach and administrator in the Baltimore County Public Schools system, Russ Lingner experienced county teams playing on Friday afternoons in front of parents and fans standing along a fence or sitting on a hill.
It was the norm for Baltimore County athletics. But Lingner knew, compared to the rest of the state, the county was lagging far behind.
“I remember when we would play outside the county, seeing what those schools had,” said Lingner, who retired this spring after 32 years in the county school system and 18 years as the athletic director at Sparrows Point High.”They played football games at night; we played at 3:45 p.m.”
What those other schools had were stadiums with grandstands, lights and other amenities such as field houses, concession stands and restrooms.
“That’s the one thing I vowed,” he said. “I vowed the kids here would have it better than I did: better facilities, better uniforms, better all around.”
Lingner fulfilled his vow in stages. First came the grandstand with controlled access to the Sparrows Point field, as well as a sign bearing the stadium’s name: First Mariner Field at Sparrows Point.
Lights were added later: first temporary, then permanent. No more Friday or Saturday afternoon football games.
A new scoreboard. A concession stand, donated by a local family. And in 2016, artificial turf was installed on the field.
To get the funding for the stadium, Lingner went to then-principal Rob Santacroce, to recreation council and community leader Fred Thiess (who passed away in 2012), and to then-county councilman John Olszewski Sr.
“I didn’t think it would come together so fast,” Lingner recalled. “Before I knew it, we were meeting with Ed Hale.”
(Hale was then the CEO of First Mariner Bank, which he founded. The name of the stadium mentioned earlier constitutes a spoiler.)
“We were sitting in his office in Canton, in that tower, and he asked why we were there,” Lingner said. “I told him what we wanted to do, and he said he liked it. Then he called [former county executive] Jim Smith and put him on the spot.
“We went back to the community, raised more money, and got it done within a year. Everything just took off.”
While taking his daily 5 a.m. walk one day, Lingner decided the new stadium needed lights so night events would be possible.
Councilman Olszewski told Lingner to wait five years before asking for money for lights.
Before those five years were up, however, he had another idea. Walking past a construction site, he saw the huge portable lights used for illumination.
“I wondered if they would work for lighting our stadium,” Linfner said. “I talked to people and they said, ‘why not?’ The community raised $10,000 to help get the portable lights installed.”
Sparrows Point played night games under the portable construction lights for two years.
Around the same time, Patapsco was having a stadium built, while Dundalk High School was demolished and replaced with a new building that opened in fall 2013 and eventually included a new stadium with lights and artificial turf.
“Sparrows Point, the smallest of the three local schools, has to raise money for everything,” Lingner said. “Patapsco got a new stadium, Dundalk got a new school, and they didn’t have to raise any money themselves.”
After what Lingner described as a “heated exchange” with Olszewski Sr., the councilman went to Baltimore County and obtained funding to install the permanent lights on First Mariner Field.
“Councilman Olszewski helped us out a lot, and so did his son,” said Lingner, referring to former state delegate John Olszewski Jr., currently the Democratic nominee for county executive in the November general election.
Lingner also stressed the importance of the local community in supporting his efforts to improve the school.
“This little community of Edgemere has, and always will, be supportive of this school.”
In 2003, a tragic auto accident took the life of Sparrows Point student Adam Parr and left another student, Zach Bradley, clinging to life.
Gail Parr, Adam’s mother, used money from the settlement her family received to build the stadium concession stand.
“That’s just an example of what Edgemere does for the school,” Lingner said. “And if I didn’t have Fred Thiess back in those days, we may not have been able to get that stadium. He cemented a lot of support.”
A 1978 Patapsco High graduate who played football and baseball for the Patriots, Lingner went to Potomac State College before transferring to Towson State University and graduating with a degree in physical education.
There were no openings in Baltimore County, so Lingner coached baseball at Dundalk Community College and taught physical education at Our Lady of Hope/St. Claire.
He also helped coach football and baseball at Patapsco, and was eventually offered a teaching position at Patapsco in 1986.
“It was great, being at my alma mater,” Lingner said. “All the teachers and coaches who were there when I was a student were still there. They all rallied around me.”
After three years at Patapsco, however, Lingner was excessed. He had student-taught at Sparrows Point, and then-athletic director Mitchell Moon asked him to come to Sparrows Point.
Lingner applied for the open athletic director position at Patapsco in 1997, thinking he was the front-runner, but wasn’t offered the position.
“I often think back to how i was this close to not having a career at Sparrows Point whatsoever,” Lingner said. “I’ve learned not to take things for granted.”
Instead, when Moon retired in 2000 after a long distinguished career, Lingner was chosen to replace him starting in fall 2000.
“I often think about what would have happened [had he been hired as the Patapsco A.D.],” Lingner said. “How everything might have changed. Sometimes when a door shuts, you think that’s it, but God had other pans for me, and that plan was to be at Sparrows Point.”
During Lingner’s time as the Sparrows Point A.D., the Pointers have reached the girls soccer state championship game nine times, winning five state titles; have won 13 girls soccer regional titles; two boys soccer state titles and five regional titles; have won three baseball regional titles and reached the state championship game in 2014; have won three softball regional titles and reached the state finals in 2014 and 2015; have won two regional titles in both girls and boys lacrosse; won regional titles in field hockey and volleyball; and won three regional dual-meet wrestling titles (twice reaching the finals), one regional tournament wrestling title and two Baltimore County tournament championships.
The football team has also reached the playoffs six times, twice advancing to the regional championship game.
The soccer program was competitive when Lingner became athletic director, but the last state title was back in the mid-1970’s. The football program was in disarray, and the varsity squad had to be folded Lingner’s first year.
Then Eric Webber took over the football program in 2003 and turned it around.
“Everything else started to follow in line, Lingner said. “We started getting more and more competitive, and things just took off.”
And Sparrows Point maintains its success. Other schools rise and fall, but Sparrows Point remains strong, year after year, in softball, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, wrestling, field hockey and volleyball.
Lingner likens Sparrows Point to Hereford High, which is also known for its consistent athletic programs.
“We’re both old-fashioned, traditional community-based schools,” he said. “Everyone in the community rallies around the high school. It’s a throwback, it’s Mayberry, and that’s a good thing.”
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