Baker is happy to be back wrestling again

Nate Baker, now a junior at Minnesota State-Moorhead, is happy to be back wrestling in college again. That's all that matters right now.

It doesn't matter that he was once considered a "can't-miss" wrestler who was going to be the next University of Minnesota great. It doesn't matter that his dream, ever since he was a little boy, was to follow in the footsteps of University of Minnesota four-time All-American Chad Kraft. It doesn't matter that he and Josh McLay were supposed to form a dynamic one-two punch in the middle of the Gopher lineup for years to come. It doesn't matter that he won three Minnesota state high school titles and racked up more than 200 career wins. It doesn't matter that he won the prestigious Junior Nationals, the summer after his senior year, in a weight class that would eventually produce an astonishing four Division I NCAA champions. It doesn't matter that he has beaten the following Division I NCAA champions: Ryan Bertin (twice), Chris Pendleton (twice), and Troy Letters (three times). It doesn't matter that he was named "Mr. Minnesota," an honor bestowed upon the top senior wrestler in the state.

Nate Baker
To understand why none of those things matter anymore, you must first understand what this 24-year-old's journey has been like, and where he wants it to take him.

In the mid-1980s, Nate began tagging along with his father, Randy Baker, a high school wrestling coach, to his practices.

Randy grew up in southwestern Minnesota and has spent virtually his entire life in that area. In high school, he wrestled at Jackson High School in Minnesota, then moved on to wrestle and become an All-American at nearby Worthington Community College (now Minnesota West Community College), before finishing up his competitive wrestling career at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After Randy graduated from college with his physical education degree, it took him a few years to acquire a teaching and coaching job. But in 1984, Lakefield, (which has since joined with Jackson), hired him as a part-time teacher and wrestling coach. He's been there ever since.

Randy's passion was, and still is, coaching wrestling. He loves every minute of it. He has become one of the most successful wrestling coaches in Minnesota State High School League history. He is also considered to be on one of the brightest wrestling minds around. He has produced great teams, great wrestlers, and great people. He ranks fourth on the all-time list in Minnesota as having coached 17 individual state champions. In 1997, he was named State Wrestling Man of the Year. In 2001, he was named USA Wrestling Developmental Coach of the Year, an award given annually to the top coach in the nation working with age-group wrestlers and programs.

So it was only natural for Randy to pass on his love and passion for the sport to his only son, Nate.

Nate wrestled in his first match when he was in kindergarten. Those who watched him, even at such a young age, could tell right away that he was naturally gifted. He grew up listening to everything his father preached. He emulated the techniques and wrestling styles of the Kraft brothers, Matt and Chad, whom his father had coached on the high school team. Both Matt and Chad were high school standouts who went on to wrestle for the hometown Gophers. Nate wanted to be just like them.

In 2001, Randy Baker was named USA Wrestling Developmental Coach of the Year (
Nate would go on to reach the Minnesota/USA Kids Freestyle State Tournament finals eight times, winning it five times. While many young wrestlers attended wrestling camps all across the country, at places like Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Arizona State, Nate stayed home and learned from his father. Randy could show him everything he needed to know to be successful.

"He helped me so much throughout my career," says Nate of his father. "He guided me. He helped me with my decisions. He helped me learn the proper ways to cut weight. Pretty much all the technique I learned came from him."

Although Nate saw a lot of success as a youth wrestler, there were still the disappointments along the way. Take, for instance, the time he drew Jacob Clark in the first round of the Minnesota/USA Kids Freestyle State Tournament, and was two and done, after winning the state title the year before. Or the time he lost in the Cadet state finals to Luke Eustice. Or the time he lost to a lesser opponent, because that wrestler stalled the entire match, and Nate didn't get any help from the referee.

"You had to deal with those things," said Randy. "It might have made for a little quieter ride home, but when you talked, it was more than just coaching him. It was a relationship and you didn't give up on each other."

When Nate was in eighth grade, wrestling for his father at Jackson County Central, he placed sixth at 103 pounds at the Minnesota State High School Tournament. The following year, as a freshman, he finished as the state runner-up at 119 pounds. He won his first state high school title as a sophomore wrestling at 140 pounds.

"I was really excited," said Nate of winning his first title. "It was something that I had planned on doing the year before, but I lost in the finals."

Randy Baker led the Jackson County Central Huskies to back-to-back Minnesota state titles in 1999 and 2000 (
His junior season, he pinned all four opponents en route to another state title, this time at 152 pounds. He also guided the Jackson County Central Huskies to the state team title. That summer, he placed third at Junior Nationals in freestyle. His impressive wrestling resume made him one of the most sought after recruits in the country. Shortly after July 1, 1999, when coaches are permitted to contact recruits, University of Minnesota head coach, J Robinson, and his top assistant, Marty Morgan, called Nate and expressed interest. Iowa, who had won the national title a few months prior (edging Minnesota), waited a little while, before contacting him for a visit. It wasn't long before Tom Brands and Jim Zalesky were sitting in the Baker's living room, trying to persuade him to come to Iowa City and wrestle for the Hawkeyes.

But during the fall of 1999, when the wrestling recruiting season was in full swing, Nate's schedule was jam-packed. He played both ways on the football team and was an avid hunter, so it was tough to find time. He and Matt Shankey, a fellow Minnesota high school standout, took their recruiting visits together. They looked at Wisconsin, Northern Iowa, Iowa, and Minnesota. Baker chose Minnesota. Shankey chose Iowa.

"It came down to Iowa and Minnesota," said Nate. "They were my top two choices. I was very interested in Iowa. Obviously they have a great program. But the reason I went to Minnesota is because I knew a lot of the guys. I just felt a little more comfortable with the situation there."

His senior season, he won his third state title while wrestling with a torn MCL, and once again, he led the Huskies to the team title. After winning his championship match, Nate walked off the mat and hugged his father.

Nate Baker hugs his father, Randy, after winning his third state title (
"The road we were on together made it pretty emotional," recalled Randy. "It was a long process. We went through a lot of great memories, but also a lot of time and work. I think people sometimes don't realize what kids who win state titles really have to go through. Other people are sitting around in the summer, going to the beach, partying or whatever, while a lot of the top wrestlers are going to camps, working out, or going to Cadet and Junior Nationals."

Even though Nate was already headed to the University of Minnesota in the fall, he still wanted to test the waters that summer at the always tough Junior Nationals. Prior to the tournament, he and Randy had shingled and done carpentry work in the hot, summer heat -- which gave Nate a strong conditioning base.

"At training camp for Junior Nationals, I got my weight down fine, and I just felt really good throughout all the practices," recalled Nate. "So I knew going into the tournament that I was going to have a good performance. Once I got out there, everything started flowing. All of my matches seemed to work out exactly how I had planned them."

Nate dominated at Junior Nationals. He won seven of his nine matches in his pool by technical fall or fall. The only two matches that went the distance in his pool, ironically, were against two eventual two-time NCAA champions, Pendleton and Bertin. In the finals, Nate defeated Letters, 7-5, which marked the second straight year that he had beaten him at Junior Nationals.

Nate Baker claimed the Junior Nationals title in 2000 at 154 pounds (
With his illustrious prep career behind him, it was time to take care of business at the next level.

Nate enrolled at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2000. He redshirted his first season with the Gophers. Wrestling unattached at 157 and 165, he posted an impressive 21-3 record. He captured titles at the Kaufman-Brand Open (20-and-under division), Northern Open, Flash-Flanagan Open, and Worthington Open. One of his three losses that season came to his teammate, Luke Becker (who captured the NCAA title at 157 that season), in the finals of the Bison Open, 10-5.

"My first year at Minnesota was really a good experience for me," said Nate. "Going from high school to college, I didn't know how big of a change in levels it would be. I was wrestling with (Luke) Becker, (Brad) Pike, and a lot of great wrestlers. So I learned a lot just from wrestling them. When I went out to wrestle in competitions, it made it a lot easier, because I was already wrestling some of the best wrestlers in the nation. I felt pretty good about the way I was wrestling all the way through my redshirt year."

It was a promising start to what looked to be a great career. He was now ready to make his mark in the Gopher lineup.

In the next season, the Gophers had a logjam at 165 pounds. Nate, John Hardy, and Mitch Marr all battled for the right to start. At the Kaufman-Brand Open in November, Nate lost a tight match, 5-3, to Hardy in the finals. It was back and forth all season. Nate never knew when he would be in the lineup.

In fact, one time that season, Randy had driven up to Minneapolis to visit Nate. The two were sitting at Perkins Restaurant, casually talking, when all of a sudden Nate's cell phone rang. It was J Robinson.

He told Nate to get his weight down, because he had a plane ticket for him to travel Purdue the next day and wrestle in the lineup.

Nate, who had no idea that he might be wrestling, was eight pounds over weight. It was 8:00 at night. He ran all night, made weight, traveled to Purdue, and lost his match by two points. Hardy replaced Nate in the lineup for the next dual.

Nate won two of his last three duals, which included a fall over seventh-ranked Johnny Clark of Ohio State. He earned the right to be in the lineup for the postseason.

"Once I got in the lineup, I tried to show the coaches that I was the one they wanted in there, just by wrestling hard," said Nate. "When it came down to the last couple of duals, I finally earned the spot. So I figured out that all my hard work was paying off."

During the 2001-02 season, Nate Baker compiled a 29-15 record while wrestling at 165 pounds for the University of Minnesota (
Nate placed fifth at the Big Ten Championships, which qualified him for the NCAA Tournament. At the NCAA Tournament, in Albany, New York, he won his opening round match, 13-11, but then lost 12-2 to top-seeded Joe Heskett of Iowa State. Nate was then eliminated in the consolation bracket by Chris Vitale of Lehigh. He finished that season with an overall record of 29-15.

The NCAA Tournament had been a bitter-sweet experience for Nate. On the one hand, he didn't wrestle as well as he had hoped. But on the other hand, his team, the Gophers, captured their second straight NCAA title.

"It was great to be a part of a national championship team," said Nate. "It was something that I knew a lot of the guys really wanted."

Nate spent the summer lifting and training as he prepared for the 2002-03 season. The first match that season was the much publicized dual between Minnesota and Iowa. Nate weighed in for the dual, but the coaches decided not to wrestle him. A week later, Nate failed to place at the Kaufman-Brand Open in Omaha. In early-December, he finished third at the UNI Open.

At that time, Nate was trying to cope with serious family problems, something no one would ever want to experience. Soon after that, in the fall of 2002, he left the Minnesota program.

In late-February of 2003, Nate stepped back on the mat and claimed the 174-pound title at the USA Wrestling Collegiate Nationals in Rochester, Minnesota. The next fall, Nate got in a car accident, and although no one was seriously hurt, the accident took a financial and emotional toll on him. That winter, with Nate still living in Minneapolis, but no longer wrestling for the Gophers, he began coaching at Eagan High School, a Minneapolis suburb. One of Randy's former wrestlers, Chad Gage, was the head coach at Eagan, and had known the Baker family for years.

The next summer, 2004, Nate moved back home and worked. Last winter, he began coaching with his father at Jackson County Central.

Bryan Cowdin, whom Nate had known for years, a former Minnesota state champion at a school located near Jackson (Worthington), and an All-American at both Minnesota West and South Dakota State, also joined the Baker duo on the coaching staff.

"Bryan and I started wrestling each other when I was in eighth grade," said Nate. "Our matches were a big deal around the area, just because we were both talented wrestlers. A lot of people would show up at our duals. But when he started coaching at Jackson, I got to know him really well."

In January of 2005, just for fun, Nate and Cowdin got back on the mat and wrestled in the Worthington Open, held at Minnesota West. Both won titles.

So what did Randy think of the experience of coaching with his son?

"It was pretty interesting, but it was a lot of fun," said Randy. "It was interesting how he would act, how he would coach. He wasn't really a yeller, but he knew what to do. He did a good job. A couple of times we would have a little disagreement about what we wanted a wrestler to do, but for the most part, we were on the same page."

Last season, Don Hoonhorst, a former wrestler at Minnesota State-Moorhead (Division II), who was living near Jackson, noticed that Nate was coaching. If Nate wanted to return to college wrestling, his only options were Division II, Division III, or NAIA, since his Division I eligibility had run out. So Hoonhorst got on the phone and called his former coach, Keenan Spiess, and mentioned that he should talk to Nate about the possibility of joining the program. So Spiess made the call to Nate.

"It was just a question of whether or not he was ready to go back to school, get his degree, and move on with his life," said Spiess, who is beginning his third season as head coach of the Dragons. "That was the main thing. I didn't really bug him that much. I just told him that we're interested, if he's ready to come back."

Keenan Spiess
Thankfully for Spiess, it worked. Nate made the decision to enroll at Minnesota State-Moorhead this fall. He is expected to compete at 165 pounds for the Dragons. Cowdin will also join the wrestling program second semester, after he finishes up some coursework at Minnesota West.

Randy is happy that Nate made the decision to get back on the mat.

"That was one of my goals, to get him back wrestling," said Randy. "I knew that he would get the itch again, especially if he was around it. I just don't want him to have those questions later in his life, seeing guys he has beaten be national champions, and then have some bitterness about what happened in his life. So I wanted to get him back on the mat, and at least answer those questions himself. If you go back, and you don't want to do it, then you'll know. But if you don't ever go back, you're always going to wonder, and wish you would have. Regrets are really hard."

On Nov. 23, Minnesota State-Moorhead travels to Augsburg College to wrestle the defending Division III national champions. There is a possibility that Nate could meet up with another former Minnesota prep star, who also spent some time in the University of Minnesota room, Marcus LeVesseur. Levesseur, who transferred to Augsburg after just one season at Minnesota, has won three Division III national titles and has compiled a record of 124-0 while wrestling at 157 pounds. There is unconfirmed speculation, however, that LeVesseur might move up to 165 pounds for his senior season.

Nate's goal for this season is to finish on top.

"Hopefully I can win a national title this year," said Nate, who has two years of eligibility remaining. "That's my main goal, especially after making it to the NCAA's in Division I. I think that because of some of the guys I've wrestled, and how they're doing, I should be able to do just as well."

Added Randy, "If Nate can get to where he was, I think you'll see that smile back on his face. For a long time, he was pretty reserved. A lot of negative things were going on and you don't know how to fix them. Really, until you realize you can't fix them, you kind of stumble."

But regardless of what happens on the wrestling mat, Spiess believes that Nate is setting himself up for a prosperous future.

"I'm excited to have him on the team," said Spiess. "He's doing really well in school. He's a construction management major. They set them up really well with jobs when they are done here. As long as he sticks to his guns, he's going to have a great life ahead of him."

Despite the adversity Nate has faced the past few years, he believes the tough nature of the sport is what helped to bring him back.

"I've always known that wrestling is a tough sport," said Nate. "There is a lot of adversity you have to deal with. I've learned a lot through wrestling, like how to deal with different things just from being a wrestler. That's why I'm back in it now."


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