As Alex Baker glided along, gobbling up large chunks of the track beneath him with long, efficient strides, no one would ever have guessed there were times when the Crystal Lake Central distance star suffered from self-doubt.
Baker recalls two instances when he was frustrated and ready to quit. Both times, Central boys cross country coach Bill Eschman talked Baker off that career ledge and put things in their proper perspective.
To his credit, Baker listened intently. Instead of giving up on running, he became one of the best runners in the history of the most tradition-rich distance school in McHenry County.
Baker finished fourth in the Class 3A 1,600 meters at the boys track and field state meet last month in Charleston. For his state finish and his distance dominance in the area, Baker is the Northwest Herald Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year, which comes on the heels of his Northwest Herald Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year in the fall season.
Baker remembers the two pivotal moments clearly when looking back at his career.
“One was my sophomore year, after a workout and I kind of broke down mentally,” he said. “The second one was during an indoor meet my junior year. The same thing happened, it was after a race and I told him I didn’t want to run anymore. He talked me out of it and said I took things too far. It made me mentally stronger.”
Both conversations are etched in Eschman’s memories as well.
“That’s some of my favorite stuff,” Eschman said. “[Baker] had his moments, that’s what we love about him. He had his struggles, it was not like everything was given to him.”
Eschman remembers Baker finishing behind Prairie Ridge’s Mitch Wilkins and Joe Cowlin, and Grayslake Central’s Will Brewster at the Fox Valley Conference Indoor Meet in his junior year.
“We walked outside [Dundee-Crown’s gym]. It was a long talk,” Eschman said. “I missed half the meet, but obviously it was worth it.”
Baker did not earn a medal in state track as a junior, but he came out better than ever in cross country. The only runners who finished ahead of him in the fall were three state champions – Beecher’s Grant Nykaza (Class 1A), Glenbard South’s John Wold (2A) and St. Ignatius’ Jack Keelan (3A) – and Belvidere North’s Garrett Lee.
Baker won the 800 and 1,600 meters at the McHenry County Meet. He set the FVC Meet record in the 3,200 (9:04.93) and almost broke the 1,600 record with his 4:18.56. He finished in 4:14.66, just short of Tom Enright’s school record.
Now, when the names of great former Tigers runners such as Enright and 3,200 record-holder Bill Santino are mentioned, Baker’s will be right there with them.
“We’ve had some really, really good runners,” Tigers boys track coach Brian Seaver said. “I guess times don’t lie. That 9:04 is the fastest I’ve seen [at Central]. Since I’ve been here [in the late 1990s], Alex is the best I’ve seen.”
Baker holds the highest regard for his coaches and former teammate Chris Alvarez, who now runs at Iowa State, and who also helped him with the mental aspect of running.
“It’s an honor [to be considered in the group],” Baker said. “At first, I never thought I’d be up there. It’s flattering. It’s really nice to see all the hard work pay off and being one of those guys. I started believing in myself. My mindset was to reach for the stars. If you miss, you’ll still hit the moon. I got really confident and came to a whole new level of running.”