BIDWELL, Ohio — Looking to finish what she started.
When Kenzie Baker burst onto the scene as a freshman, she instantly became the top distance runner at River Valley High School.
After numerous successes in both cross country and track during her freshman and sophomore campaigns, Baker ran into a bit of a bad spell as injuries started depriving her of her normal accolades late through her junior year and early on in her senior season.
But now, fully healthy and competing better than ever in track and field, Baker is once again finding herself at the top of her game.
And apparently, others have noticed too.
Baker will be continuing her cross country and track careers at the collegiate level after signing a letter of intent with Cleveland State University on Wednesday, April 11, on the RVHS stage.
Baker — who is part of three school records in track and another in swimming — is a two-time All-TVC and two-time regional qualifier in cross country, as well as qualifying for regionals in the 3200m run as a sophomore.
Baker has regularly trained with the boys distance runners over the years because she has — for the most part — not been challenged as much by her female counterparts in practice.
That competitive spirit is something that has always defined Baker, having lettered in 10 varsity sports over her four years with the Lady Raiders.
But, with an opportunity to compete at the Division I level, Baker is not only thrilled about the rare opportunity … but also the chance to be amongst teammates that she’ll have more in common with.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity of competing against quality competition over the next four years and being part of a girls team that will push me to become the best runner that I can be,” Baker said. “I’ve spent a lot of my high school career training with the guys, so I am really looking forward to just being one of the girls and helping Cleveland State have the best girls programs possible.”
River Valley cross country coach and assistant track coach Darin Smith is quite familiar with Baker’s journey, having served as her distance coach for eight varsity seasons. Smith is also Baker’s step-father.
Personal feelings aside, Smith really feels that Cleveland State will be a good test for Baker over the next four years. He also believes that the Vikings can get even more out of her competitively than he did.
“Kenzie has had a little bit of a different journey in high school. She came in and dominated as a freshman and sophomore, but then battled some injuries for about a year before getting things straightened out in early winter,” Smith said. “She’s worked really hard to get herself back into form this winter and is actually running better now than at any point in her career, so I do feel she still has a lot of room to improve over the next four years. Her best is still yet to come.”
Baker, who acknowledges that the injuries did help rekindle a competitive fire, plans on majoring in the Nursing program during her tenure as a Viking.
Though she enjoyed her visit to the campus and what the school has to offer, it was the complexity of the challenge ahead that really seemed to draw Baker to the outskirts of downtown Cleveland campus.
One thing is certain, Baker is headed to a place where she is focused on succeeding.
“I know it’s going to be difficult trying to balance the studies, the training and the competition, but I feel like I can do it because they are all things that are important to me,” Baker said. “Cleveland State has provided a great opportunity to me and I want to make the most of this chance because I am very passionate about all of the things involved.
“I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I also know that there is a lot more work to be done at Cleveland State. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Smith acknowledges that Baker had a handful of offers to other programs — including non-Division I programs in Ohio — but that she really wanted to go somewhere that would get the absolute best out of her abilities.
Smith also thinks there was another reason behind her choice of the Horizon League school … and it was for all the right reasons.
“I think Kenzie made some of this decision based on the fact that she didn’t want to be the best female athlete on the team coming into school. She wanted to work with other female teammates that would push her to get better,” Smith said. “I believe that Kenzie wants to be part of something bigger than herself and I think she wanted something that would challenge her. Cleveland State, both athletically and academically, will do those things.”
Baker notes that as humbling and exciting as this opportunity is, she definitely did not get here all by herself. Her goal is to make a lot of people proud with what she accomplishes in the Green and Gold.
“I have a lot of people to thank in getting me to this moment, but I really want to thank my family, coaches and friends for all of their support and encouragement over the years,” Baker said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of them pushing during my time at River Valley. Those are the people, besides myself, that I’m competing for.”
Baker, who hopes to later study Forensic Nursing, currently carries a 3.6 grade-point average. Kenzie is the daughter of Darin and Leah Smith of Bidwell, as well as Jacob Baker.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.