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.”
Northwest Herald Boys Cross Country All-Area Team
Alex Baker, Crystal Lake Central, Senior
The Northwest Herald Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year took second in the IHSA Cross Country State Meet in the Class 2A boys race to Glenbard South’s John Wold. His state meet time of 14:21 was the fastest in Central’s school history and his second-place finish also was the best ever for a Tigers runner.
Joe Cowlin, Prairie Ridge, Senior
Cowlin’s fourth-place finish in Class 2A was the best in Prairie Ridge’s school history. He was runner-up to Baker in almost every big local race and was third in the Belvidere Sectional. Cowlin won the Flight 1 at the Woodstock-Ryan Byrne Festival, a race where runners compete against the corresponding runners from other teams.
Ryan Pitner, Crystal Lake Central, Junior
Pitner just got better and better as the season progressed finished 23rd in Class 2A state to earn All-State honors and help the Tigers to fourth place as a team. Pitner was fifth in the Fox Valley Conference Meet and 15th at the Belvidere Sectional.
Calvin Quarterman, McHenry, Senior
Quarterman had a strong year for the Warriors and was often near the top group in local races. He was fourth at the McHenry County and FVC meets and won Flight 2 in the Woodstock-Ryan Byrne Festival race. He took ninth at the Crystal Lake South Invitational and was 10th at the Wauconda Invitational.
Jesse Reiser, McHenry, Sophomore
Reiser made a name for himself as a freshman in track when he qualified for state in the Class 3A 3,200 meters. He took up this fall where he had left off when he was right behind Baker and Cowlin at the McHenry County Meet. Reiser finished his season in seventh place in Class 3A state, the best finish ever for a McHenry boys runner.
Matt Johnson, Jacobs, Junior
James Kaht, Richmond-Burton, Junior
Jorge Pichardo, Harvard, Senior
Ryan Ross, Jacobs, Senior
Keagan Smith, Huntley, Freshman
Adam Baker, Crystal Lake Central, Senior
Seth Conroy, Huntley, Freshman
Tyler Estell, Jacobs, Senior
Zach Gemmel, Crystal Lake Central, Junior
Michael Hahndorf, McHenry, Freshman
Duncan Henderson, Crystal Lake South, Senior
David Lenzini, Crystal Lake South, Junior
Matt Stelmasek, Johnsburg, Freshman
Timmy Wiltshire, Harvard, Senior
D.J. Wolfram, Richmond-Burton, Senior
– Compiled by Joe Stevenson, the Northwest Herald