Big 12 Campus Correspondent
It has been anything but a smooth road to success for Kansas State fifth-year senior hurdler Denise Baker. Plagued with injuries and recovery her first three years as a Wildcat, Baker has showed determination and resiliency that most of us could only dream to have.
Coming out of Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, Texas, Baker helped lead the Cougars to a 2006 district championship. She is well decorated with many different awards and medals throughout her high school career. In 2006 she was named All-State in the 100-meter hurdles and was also named District champion in the 100-meter hurdles from 2004-06. In 2005 Baker was named an All-American in the 60-meter hurdles and placed third in the Texas State Championships in the 100-meter hurdles. Baker was a four-year letterwinner in track and a two-year letterwinner in cross country at Cinco Ranch.
After much success in high school Baker found her college suitors to be limited two in-state rivals Kansas State and Kansas. Though she was from the state of Texas, none of the major programs in the Lone Star State showed major interest in Baker.
"Obviously, there are a lot of great Division I sprint-hurdle programs in Texas and none of those people recruited Denise. So they did not see it," said K-State head track and field coach Cliff Rovelto.
During her first year at K-State, Baker was given a red-shirt. During that season she tore her ACL in practice which set her back in her progression not only that year but for most of her second year as well. Baker said she was frustrated with the misfortune of tearing her ACL because she then had to build up her muscle and re-learn how to run hurdles.
"I guess my career did not really start until last year, it feels like," Baker said. "My first year here, I tore my ACL and the next year, I was just really recovering from that. In my first three years here, I just really struggled."
Baker had not made a whole lot of progress in her first two years as a Wildcat. In her third year she got back to where she was running in high school, which was OK according to her coaches but not great.
"It is really encouraging because when you are not running well, it is really hard to stay motivated. But when you keep getting faster and faster, it pushes you," Baker said. "It feels really good to see your improvement and to see that your hard work is really paying off."
The last two years, she has made tremendous progress, scoring in both indoor and outdoor conference meets in 2010. Prior to that, she failed to make the finals. There were times were she did not even make the Big 12 travel squad, but Rovelto said her determination and steady improvement have now put her among the top hurdlers in the conference.
"To get from where she was two years ago to last year, in and of itself, was a pretty significant improvement. This year, she has gone onto an entirely different level," Rovelto said. "In her second indoor race of this season, she set a personal record and she has just steadily lowered it since that time."
Most recently, Baker ran to a KSU Open meet record by shedding nearly one-tenth of a second off her PR at 8.32 seconds. Baker stands second on the school list for indoors and has improved her PR four times this season.
"I would not be surprised if she did a similar type of thing with outdoors and became second on the school list. There have been some pretty good athletes here, so that in and of itself is pretty significant for a gal like her," Rovelto said.
Not only has Baker been excelling on the track but she is also a tremendous student-athlete who has been buried in a treacherous dietetics curriculum. Baker is a student-athlete in every sense of the word.
"It can be hard because I have to take a lot of science classes, especially with Human Body. But you just have to manage your time and I am pretty good with that because I like to be busy. I would rather be busy that to sit at home," she said.
Her efforts on and off the track do not go unnoticed by the coaching staff.
According to Rovelto, "She has always had a lot on her plate. It would have been easy for her to just let it go but she has not. She just works hard."