Redshirt senior Alex Baker, 22, never thought a simple hill workout would put his running career on hold, but that is exactly what happened to the cross country runner prior to his junior season.
While running down a hill, Baker stepped in a hole and sprained his ankle the summer before his junior year. What he and his coaches thought was going to be a two-week recovery became a season-long injury resulting in him redshirting his junior year.
“It was tough [watching Baker go through his injury],” coach Mircea Bogdan said. “It happened during preseason camp … the team lost a lot. We had a strong team and … losing him was like losing 30 percent of the strength of that team.”
During his time here at Loyola, Baker, a sociology major, has made an everlasting impression on his teammates and coaches. They can agree he is a silent leader and always sets a good example for the rest of the team. Sophomore Derek Rink has only known Baker for two years, but is in awe by the way that Baker trains.
“It is really inspiring, he is a great athlete and great person,” Rink said. “Great characteristics for the position he is in and he really knows how to lead the team. He is one of the most humble runners that I know.”
Baker didn’t always run cross country. While at Crystal Lake Central High School in the northwest suburb Crystal Lake, Illinois, he began his running career with track and soccer. He was a midfielder on the soccer team, which required a lot of running and good endurance. Because of this, he always gravitated toward the long distance races during track.
“My high school distance coach asked if there was any chance that I didn’t want to do soccer [if] I would want to run cross [country],” Baker said. “It just turned out that I liked the cross country team better than the soccer team. I just got along with the guys better.”
Baker’s breakout season at Loyola was his sophomore year, just before his injury. He placed 19th at the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championships and 36th at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet. Getting injured while at the top of his game wasn’t ideal, but Baker kept working.
“I was able to stay a little fit [while injured], through lifting and core,” Baker said. “But the issue was I lost a lot of endurance. I would have to do biking and swimming which isn’t exactly running. When my ankle was starting to feel good, even if it was a little stiff, I could push through it. Just slowly being able to run again and slowly building up my miles, I was able to get a little more endurance back. That was kind of my summer coming back from my injury, I just wasn’t able to hit any high mileage. I was still just working up to it.”
Even with the loss of a season, Baker was still able to match his old times in his return. Still, they weren’t where he wanted them to be, and he wants a chance to prove to himself he can do better. Since Baker is now running at top speed, Bogdan has high hopes for Baker’s final season as a Loyola athlete.
“I have talked to him many times before and I have said the goal is to challenge for the win at the MVC championships,” Bogdan said. “The next goal after that, as we go to Ames, Iowa for the NCAA regional championships, we want him to challenge for an individual spot that would send him to the big national meet. I think he could be a guy that has a shot to win the MVC, which would be huge for us. And challenge for a spot at the national meet.”
In his final season, Baker has already finished first place with a time of 25:02.7 at the Illinois State University’s Country Financial Invitational, and named the MVC Cross Country Athlete of the week.
The men’s cross country team is scheduled to race on Sept. 29 in the Notre Dame Invitational at University of Notre Dame.