Marshall: A birthday wish for Baker
One might describe Ron Baker's birthday today as the best birthday ever.
Especially if you've graduated past your teenage years.
The 2011 Scott City High School graduate leaves the tender years of youth today. So how will he be celebrating his 20th special day?
Early this evening, Baker and his Wichita State University Shocker basketball teammates will be in the Staples Center in Los Angeles going against Big Ten bully Ohio State for the NCAA West Regional title in an Elite Eight battle to determine that representative into the Final Four a week from today in Atlanta.
Who could have imagined the route for Baker to arrive on college basketball's biggest stage?
How many players are willing to go to college as a walk-on for their first year, knowing full well that they won't be playing, and just as importantly, paying their own way?
That was, and is, Ron Baker.
For those who witnessed the transformation of Baker from a 5-9, 145-pound freshman in high school who barely saw the light of day on the varsity team to a 6-3, 190-pound senior guard who scored the winning basket to provide his Beavers with the 2011 Class 3A state championship, to the now 6-3, 217-pound physical No. 2 guard for the Shockers, it's difficult to imagine the work that was put in, the dedication that it took, to arrive where he will be today.
Some athletes are just meant to be in the spotlight, and by now, I believe Baker is one of those.
He was thrown into the starting quarterback role at Scott City as a junior and over the two years guided his team to a 21-2 record while quarterbacking and playing free safety, and also serving as the team's punter. He was a shortstop and pitcher for the Beavers when they went to compete in the state tournament in 2010.
He was The Telegram's 2010 Football Player of the Year, the 2011 Basketball Player of the Year, and was an all-area player in baseball.
Baker has been rock solid for the Shockers in his abbreviated red-shirt freshman season, which was interrupted with a 21-game absence due to a foot injury.
He scored 13 points in Thursday's 72-58 romp over LaSalle in the Sweet 16 game at the Staples Center. He knocked down important 3-point baskets, plucked a rebound and put it back in for another key second-half score, blocked a shot and generally was everywhere on the court.
Or, as WSU coach Gregg Marshall commented recently, that if there was stock to purchase in Ron Baker, one should seriously consider the investment.
Certainly Baker and the Shockers' stock is surging of late. Few basketball experts would have anticipated this group to be in the Elite Eight. There were mild surprises when they trampled Pitt, but it was the "shocker" victory over then No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga that got the world abuzz.
The momentum didn't abate, as WSU bludgeoned La Salle with a tough, wire-to-wire triumph on Thursday.
Today's outcome will be determined by any number of factors, but let's face it, all of us in southwest Kansas are rooting for the Shockers, and specifically Baker.
He thrilled us all during his high school days at Scott City. He provided the last-second heroic of a putback basket to give the Beavers their 2011 Class 3A state championship, the first of three consecutive state crowns for the school.
It was just two years ago following that dramatic 55-53 victory over Minneapolis when Baker scored 26 points, that his coach, Glenn O'Neil, said in the team's huddle just before those final seconds, "you're the senior, you're the all-stater, go make a play. That's what great players do." Baker did it then. And now he's doing it on a different, a bigger platform.
Legends are made in the NCAA basketball tournament. Just ask Keith Smart, Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, or any number of others who shined brightly in this drama-laden event.
If past history is any indication, and the game's outcome is to be determined in the closing moments, don't be surprised that you'll find Ron Baker right in the middle of it.
"Big players showcase in big games," Baker said in 2011 after that state title moment. "You can't let nerves get to you. You want to show you're the real deal."
So far, Baker is doing just that.
And, perhaps, the best is yet to come. Now that would be one happy birthday to remember!
Sports Editor Brett Marshall can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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