WEST JEFFERSON — After representing Ashe County at the conference, regional and state level in track and field, Ashe County High School’s Tafton Baker has signed on with Lenoir-Rhyne University to be a part of the Bears track and cross country teams.
Originally, Baker said he was not sure where he wanted to run, but he was approached at the NCHSAA 2A State Indoor Track Meet by a representative from Lenoir-Rhyne.
“(They) came across as real genuine and saying how good the team was, how close they were together and how much (they’d) love to have me,” Baker said. “That, to me, stood out. I would like to join a team like that. After doing a visit and getting to meet the guys and see the campus, I was really enticed by that.”
The Bears were enticed by Baker, after a high school running career that concluded Friday, May 17, where Baker placed second in the state in the boys 1600m run, with a time of 4:22.90.
ACHS track coach Alex Rollins said Baker had success because he embraced the system of running.
“On days off, those aren’t really days off,” Rollins said. “When he’s laying down seven or eight miles on a Sunday after church or on a weekend, that’s what separates good runners from great runners in high school. Athletes that are willing to go beyond the traditional week workouts and do some stuff on their own time. I think that separated him into a different class of high school athlete. His teammates really respond to him.”
Baker was joined by his father, Jerry Baker, mother, Stephanie Baker, sister,Ceanna Baker, Rollins, cross country coach Shane Greene and athletic director David Koontz at his signing in the media center of ACHS.
“It meant a lot to be able to be with my coaches that I’ve been with since my freshman year — and to have my parents there,” Baker said. “It was like a goodbye from high school, a farewell.”
Greene said that Baker began to establish himself on the cross country team in his sophomore season, his first season participating in the sport.
“He began to take over for us and become our number one runner, and as a junior and senior, he was really a team leader,” Greene said. “He led by example. He’s pretty quiet, but the guys just gravitated toward him. They would pretty much do whatever he said. He was just a great leader, and his teammates loved him. That made a difference in our overall success.”
While Baker has had team and individual success in both sports during his high school career, he said he believes he is up to the challenge of being a collegiate student-athlete.
“I’ll be ready,” Baker said. “I’ve been racing a bunch over the last four years. After racing in that many races with high competition, I’m ready to take on the next level.”
Rollins said part of the blessing of Ashe County’s running system is occasionally you get a student like Baker.
“When they are a senior, freshmen can see, if they put the work in and commit to this, maybe they can get to that point, too,” Rollins said. “The system keeps feeding itself at some point, as long as you get the athletes to buy into the system. We’re going to miss the guy, but we’re excited for him.”