By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Cole Baker, a talented multi-sport athlete, made the difficult decision to skip one season to concentrate on another. Bedford North Lawrence’s cross country team missed his expected contributions. But, wow, does it look wise now.
Baker, one of the fastest freestyle sprinters in program history, will seek to break school records and contend for a state championship while leading BNL’s huge contingent of qualifiers in the IHSAA state preliminary races at IUPUI on Friday night.
Following sensational sectional victories, the Stars will send eight athletes into action in eight events, topped by Baker, who is one of the top seeds in two races. The top eight seeds in each event following the prelims will qualify for the state championships races on Saturday, while positions 9-16 will advance to the state consolations.
After finishing 14th in the state meet during last year’s 50-yard free, Baker is now ready to make a big splash. He’s seeded fourth in the 100 free (after setting a school record of 45.95 seconds, breaking Jacob Werley’s 2020 mark of 46.04, and he’s seeded eighth in the 50 at 21.08, just a tick behind Werley’s 21.02 in 2020.
Can he close the gap? Baker’s best could be to come. He tapered his training to peak for this week. Lafayette Harrison’s Matthew Klinge is the top seed in the 50 in a sizzling 19.74, while Carmel’s Sean Sullivan is the top seed in the 100 in 44.18.
“I’m still the underdog,” Baker said. “No one really knows who I am. The goal is to try to win.”
“I expect him to move up,” BNL coach Adam Young said. “We’re realistically looking at second in both events as a best-case scenario. We’ll go into it expecting to win, but the top seeds are pretty fast, far enough ahead that it would be a big deal to beat one of those guys.”
Baker is a big deal, making his third trip to the IHSAA state meet. He’s hard to track in the water, spending the first half of the first leg under the surface after he dives off the starting clock. Best way to locate him? Watch the finish. He’s usually in front.
Of the two races, the 50 is his favorite. It’s also the one that requires absolute perfection. One glitch, one bad stroke, a late blast off the block, an errant turn, can be extremely costly when tenths of seconds are the difference.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Baker said. “It seems like anyone can win. But if one bad thing happens – a bad start, a bad turn – you lose. I want the 50 most. The 100 was my worst event all season long. But once I get tapered, the 50 will go better.”
Baker, who plans to swim at USI next year, is also counting on experience. He feels better in the water after missing the grueling cross country season, opting to work on technique and weight training.
“It takes a lot of the pressure off, and the excitement or nerves of going,” he said. “I felt a lot stronger in the water, and working on technique, that has gotten so much better. I think I made the right decision at the end of the day, although it was a hard decision to make.”
The rest of BNL’s state qualifiers, including two other double sectional winners, have time to make up.
Isaiah Eicle is seeded 32nd in the 200 individual medley (2:06.87) and 32nd in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.47), while Garrett Gabhart is 29th in the 100 butterfly (54.43) and 32nd in the 100 backstroke (54.71).
“I’ll use it as a step on the stairs, use it for next year,” said Eicle, a junior on his way to compete in his first individual events at this level. “I want to do well, but last year I just wanted to get to the state in my own events. I did that this year, so next year I want to do well. I’m doing it one step at a time, a learning process.”
“It’s a chance to get a better time, no matter what place I get,” Gabhart said. “Then I can analyze what I did wrong and do better next year.”
BNL’s Hayden Puckett is seeded 32nd in the 500 free (5:11.61), while the 400 free relay team of Gabhart, Isaiah Conner, Jayden Duke and Trey Kimbley are seeded 32nd in 3:28.85.
“I’m looking for times drops, which is hard to do,” Young said. “At state, about half the swimmers go slower because they don’t taper for state. If we’ve done things right, there is still time to drop for them, which would be great.
“It’s an experience thing, setting them up for next year. We’re losing some good talent, but that’s only a few people. We’ll have almost the whole team back, so the expectations are pretty high, looking ahead.”