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Fastest Tiger ever

This list is short: Beecher’s Grant Nykaza, St. Ignatius’ Jake Keelan, Glenbard South’s John Wold and Belvidere North’s Garrett Lee.

Those four runners, three of whom were state champions in their respective classes, were the only competitors to beat Crystal Lake Central senior Alex Baker this cross country season.

Baker had his breakout year as a junior when he was fifth in the Class 2A boys race in the IHSA boys cross country state meet. As a senior, he won all but three races and finished second in the Class 2A state meet in 14:21, the fastest time for any area runner other than Jacobs’ Evan Jager, who won the Class AA state title in 2006.

Baker is the Northwest Herald Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, selected by the sports staff with input from area coaches. Joining Baker on the first team are his teammate Ryan Pitner, Prairie Ridge’s Joe Cowlin and McHenry’s Jesse Reiser and Calvin Quarterman. On the second team are Jacobs’ Matt Johnson and Ryan Ross, Richmond-Burton’s James Kaht, Harvard’s Jorge Pichardo and Huntley’s Keagan Smith.

“Compared to last year, I got a lot more confidence,” Baker said. “My coach and my team helped me realize I could go out and run with the top runners. Actually, going into the season I wanted to get into the 14:30s. That 14:21 [at state] I didn’t really expect. It was a nice surprise from that aspect.”

Baker’s finish was the fastest and the best state finish ever for a Tigers runner, which is something considering the history and tradition of excellence Central has.

“It definitely blows my mind. It’s such an honor,” he said. “From sophomore year, I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in what I could do. It’s cool that it ended up this way.”

Central coach Bill Eschman marvels at how much Baker improved every year through high school. As a freshman, Baker played soccer. He switched to cross country as a sophomore, then really made himself known as a junior.

“It’s been fun watching him grow every year,” Eschman said. “This year, he really learned how to run with confidence. He learned how to be a leader in the race, which was exciting to watch. What he accomplished is really impressive. That’s very special, it’s not an accident.”

Eschman said Baker’s unassuming nature is an endearing part of his character.

“He doesn’t realize how good he is,” Eschman said. “Last year, he came out at the (McHenry) County Meet and took second and nobody knew who he was. He was in awe when (Prairie Ridge’s) Mitch Wilkins (the meet champion) was talking about him. You couldn’t ask for [Baker to be] a better person, which makes his success 10 times better.”

Baker lost to Nykaza and Keelan in the Palatine Invitational. He lost to Lee in the Belvidere Sectional in a tight race, then fell off Wold’s pace at state and was second by 5 seconds. He has his college choices narrowed down to three NCAA Division I schools – Bradley, DePaul and Loyola.

“I wanted to run D-I, even if my times weren’t that great, I’d still try and walk on or something,” Baker said. “I really like D-I and I’m fortunate enough to have the times that fit in there.”

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