After five years as the Southwestern High School boys head basketball coach and 10 years with the Warriors' basketball program, Chris Baker decided it was time for him to step down. It was not an easy decision for the veteran coach, mainly because the Warrior basketball program was his 'Dream Job'.
"I always wanted to be the coach at Southwestern and I pursued this job every time it became open," Baker stated. "I scouted as a young coach when the school was first in existence. I saw all the crowds and the enthusiasm. It was something I wanted in my life and be part of. To me, Southwestern was an idea, and the possibilities of what high school could be."
Upon landing his dream job, Baker was guided in his beliefs and core values by former Southwestern High School principal Danetta Ellis.
"When I got the job as an assistant coach, Danetta Ellis laid out the standards to match that idea," Baker explained. "It was our job to be great teachers and great role models, and for 10 years that is who I tried to be. I have been trying to instill these virtues of loyalty, commitment, and respect to the young men I have been the coach of. Coaches have a shelf life and I have been here a decade."
However, Baker stated he saw changes in those core values after Ellis retired during the recent Christmas Break.
"Things are changing here, especially since Danetta Ellis' retirement, and I have seen those core values she laid out change," Baker stated. "The pandemic hit hard on all of us, and you couple that with the changes I have seen - and I felt like it was the right time to go."
"I wanted to stay one more year and let both my sons see me in the school and seeing do what I love, but coaching has taken a chunk out of their lives," Baker added. "But after a lot of discussion, I felt it was just time to go."
And while coaching high school basketball is time consuming and a grind at times, Baker had a long list of the many things he would miss as a high school basketball coach.
"I will miss summer basketball, I will miss the time we travel together, and I will miss practices," Baker stated. "I will miss the team events - where it is just you and the kids and where you really get to know each other, and your laughing and talking. That is where teams are built at and I am going to miss that. I will miss the camaraderie with the other coaches like Junior Molden and Stephen Butcher here at Southwestern."
Baker also touched on many of the things he was most proud of in his tenure as the Warriors' head basketball coach.
"The biggest thing I am proud of is the sheer number of young men that I got a chance to share a part of their lives with," Baker said. "Many of them have went on to be successful people in life. I am proud of the fact hat Peyton Gover was the 12th Region Player of the Year and a finalist for the Mr. Basketball award, and that is something that is rare at this school. I am proud of Peyton Cundiff having an outstanding career at Lindsey Wilson College. I could go on forever talking about all the great kids that have came through our program."
But in the history of the southern Pulaski County high school, Baker's 12th Region Tournament championship in 2018 may long be remembered for the way it was won. Throughout the season, the 2017-18 Warriors faced may setbacks, injuries and illness.
After a 15-point beatdown by Wayne County in the 48th District Tournament championship game, the 2017-18 Warriors limped into the 12th Region Tournament with the worst record in the field. With Pulaski County and Mercer County penciled in to play for the regional crown again, Southwestern was not even considered to get past the opening round.
After downing Boyle County in overtime in the first round, soundly defeating Pulaski County on their home court, and stunning Mercer County on a last-second Logan Dykes' layup, Southwestern pulled off the unthinkable 12th Region title in 2018.
"I am really proud of everything about my tenure at Southwestern, but that 2017-18 season was so special," Balker admitted. "That 12th Region championship will always stand out. That team is like a life lesson in commitment and resilience, the belief in yourself and the power that has."
"We won that 12th Region title with a bunch of kids that nobody really knew who they were under the previous coach," Baker recalled. "All season long, with that club, we preached play the next play, don't dwell on the past, and keep moving forward. We were solid in what we did and we knew how to do it. We had kids that knew how to play basketball. We gave them a structure and freedom to play in."
But Baker truly believed it was the struggles that the 2017-18 team endured that made them 12th Region champions
"After Christmas, Hunter Stevens broke his wrist, and we played a different line-up in almost every game because somebody was hurt or somebody was sick," Baker said. "We became use to that sort of diversity, and we learned to be resilient."
Baker will leave behind over 30 years of coaching at the high school level, with 10 years of it spent at Southwestern High School. In his five years at the helm at Southwestern, Baker compiled a 82-65 record, a district title, a region title and a trip to Rupp Arena.
STEVE CORNELIUS is the CJ Sports Editor and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CJSportseditor.