The 2007 season marked another one of these transition points for the track and field program of Baker University. It began competition with a newly resurfaced eight-lane polyurethane track, and a search for a new head coach to continue the program’s success. The season also included the return of the Baker University Relays, with nine collegiate teams entered and hopes of many more in the coming years. The future is bright for the Baker University Relays, too, as the new scheduled date and facilities provide the potential for it to become a major meet, as it once was The renaissance of the Baker University Track and Field program is well underway, and each element of past success is represented in the plans for the future.
Yoxall and Schlademan built the foundation and a created interest in the sport of track and field during a time when it was relatively unknown to Westerners. Bretnall and Liston accepted their challenge, improved the facilities, founded the Baker Relays, and added trophies to the program’s legacy. Irick and Spear did their best to maintain, bringing home a national champion, and numerous conference records. But something went awry in the 1970s, “the baton” must have been dropped between Irick and Mansfield because soon thereafter athletes quit and the program was disbanded. But after a brief period of exploration in the early 1980s stability returned with Dennis Weber and Rob Mallinder. They developed success and returned the Baker University Track and Field program to its once proud tradition. Because of the leadership and knowledge of all of these men, the Baker University Track and Field program and its athletes have been successful.
Reflecting on the past has helped the program chart its future. Since the original draft of this history in 2007 the track and field programs at Baker University have reached new heights. Zach Kindler was hired to replace Rob Mallinder and picked up where he left off. He came to Baker following three years as the head coach at Kansas Wesleyan and two years as a graduate assistant under former Baker coach Dennis Weber at Fort Hays State University. An NCAA Division 2 national champion in the javelin during his college days at Fort Hays, Kindler brought a renewed emphasis on the throwing events to the program.
Kindler arrived with big shoes to fill and went right to work. His tenure has been marked by strong team performances with the men’s and women’s teams winning a combined seven HAAC indoor and outdoor championships. Likewise, Baker athletes have continued their All-American performances at the national level. Since 2007, All-America honors have been won by no less than 10 athletes, including the program’s first national champion since 1953. Javeline thrower Stephanie Nelson became Baker’s first female national champion in 2012. Beyond the NAIA, Baker athletes have also had marked success against larger schools. Aaron Hannon won the Decathlon at the 2010 KU Relays a feat not previously accomplished by a Baker athlete since the Bretnall era of the 1920s.
To be sure, the credit extends beyond the leadership of coach Kindler. Under his watch the program has remained stability by retaining Mallinder’s top assistant Mackie Valentin as well as through an expanded coaching staff. Increased investment in the track program has allowed Baker University to hire a number of graduate assistant coaches who’ve helped bolster coaching instruction, recruiting, and have helped the program host numerous meets each season.
Indeed, the increased support and top-notch facilities have allowed the Baker University track and field program to flourish. However, this has been accompanied by changes in the membership of the HAAC. Two of the conference’s top members withdrew and moved to the NCAA Division 2 level, while a third dropped its track and field program due to budgetary concerns. Those programs combined for 28 women’s and 26 men’s indoor and outdoor conference champions between 1997 and 2011. This fluctuation in conference membership has contributed to a rebalancing of power in the conference standings. Within this power vacuum, Baker has emerged as the dominant track and field program. This is not to insinuate that Baker would not have won its most recent HAAC championships without changes in conference membership. Kindler’s teams consistence placed fourth or higher in the conference standings during his first three seasons and has continued that upward momentum.
While it is impossible to control the teams you compete against year to year, a glimpse at the record books also indicated improvement against past teams. Since 2008 the Baker University track and field records have been rewritten. Donald Lidikay’s 200m and 400m from the 1920s have fallen to Kome Okiomah and Jeremy Gathright. So too have numerous records for the distance events set by Mark Misch, Chad Marshall and Ryan Strong in the mid 1990s. Hannon and Nelson both own the school records for their respective events as do distance runners Aaron Caldwell and Megan Rosa, sprinter and hurdler Tyler Sloan as well as pole vaulter Katie Thurbon have also set school records over the past few seasons. These accomplishments, in addition to the conference titles, illustrate the level competition and quality of performances continue to improve under Kindler.
Since 2007 the Baker University track and field program has recaptured the glory days and raised expectations. The men’s and women’s track teams are moving forward acutely aware of their history and tradition and poised to add to it.