Cloquet senior Jake Baker returns from knee injury to enter postseasonSince he was a first-grader, Jake Baker knew wrestling was right up his alley. The problem was, the sport wasn’t offered in his hometown of Duluth. He tried it in Superior for a few years, but wasn’t a fan.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
Since he was a first-grader, Jake Baker knew wrestling was right up his alley. The problem was, the sport wasn’t offered in his hometown of Duluth. He tried it in Superior for a few years, but wasn’t a fan.
That’s when he made his first trip to Cloquet. He’s never quit coming back.
Baker, now a senior, entered the Cloquet Area Youth Wresting Association (CAYWA) as a fourth-grader. His mother, Julie, made the daily haul to and from practice. Finally, Baker open-enrolled in Cloquet Schools as a seventh-grader and the next year, he earned a spot on the Lumberjacks’ inaugural varsity team.
The thousands of miles traveled were never a concern.
“From our house to Cloquet, it’s about a 45-minute drive,” said Baker, who resides in Rice Lake Township. “My mom would bring me every day. It was really a blessing.”
Although he could wrestle closer to home, Baker didn’t want to.
“I liked the way Cloquet ran things,” he said. “If I didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle in Cloquet, I wouldn’t be wrestling. For me, it was Cloquet or nothing.”
As a youth wrestler, Baker became familiar with Al Denman, now the Cloquet-Esko varsity coach. Five years ago, the Lumberjacks debuted their first-ever varsity team and Denman picked the young Baker in a heartbeat and he’s been on the varsity every year.
“He was in the wrestling club since he was a little shaver,” said Denman. “His family really made a tremendous commitment to this program. And they were willing to step up.”
Wrestling is a tradition for the Baker family. Jake’s father, Joel, was a wrestler at the University of Minnesota Duluth when the program existed, and his younger brother, Jordan, is a sophomore for the Lumberjacks, wrestling varsity as well.
“I got a lot of influence from my dad,” Jake said. “I first tried it in first grade and loved it. Wrestling really pushes you. I love that. It shows the character inside of you.”
It was Baker’s character that led him to become the Lumberjacks’ two-year captain.
“He’s been such a great leader for us,” said Denman. “Jake has been a real role model for the younger ones over time and has some rare qualities about him. He’s quiet, soft spoken and such a nice young man.”
That, and he’s a good wrestler. Baker’s success on the mats has been dominant. Denman said he thinks Baker has won almost every tournament he’s been in, while his work ethic is second to none.
“Not many people understand what wrestlers go through,” Denman said. “It’s constant conditioning, techniques, weight training and dieting to stay at their weight. There are also summer clinics available. Wrestling is a long brutal season.”
Baker has put in the time during the summers as well, attending wrestling camps at the University of Minnesota and St. John’s University. Although he’s uncertain right now, wrestling in college is a possibility.
“I’d like to do it,” he said. “I’m definitely considering it.”
“We had dinner the other night and we talked about it,” added Denman. “I think community college would be a good start for him and then see where he goes from there.”
Right now, the only thing on Baker’s mind is this weekend’s section tournament.
Friday and Saturday, Baker will compete in the Section 7AA Individual Tournament in Grand Rapids. It will be his first action since returning from a right knee injury that kept him sidelined for two weeks. The 171-pounder was cleared by a doctor last week and has been training harder than ever.
“I’m excited to see what happens, but I’m not really too worried,” said Baker. “I’ve wanted to get to state ever since eighth grade. I’m going to stick to the game plan. And I’m not intimidated.”
Baker, likely to be the No. 3 or 4 seed in the roughly 10-13 individual bracket, will have to pull an upset or two if he wants to become the sixth-ever wrestler from Cloquet to advance to state.
But having wrestled against him Monday, Denman thinks that is quite possible.
“We lost some critical time at the worst time of the year,” he said, “but I wrestle Jake all of the time, and I think he’s at about 100 percent. I really hope he does well up there, because there’s no one that has paid their dues like Jake has. He deserves this shot and if he makes it to state, it would be real fitting for everything that he has put in over his time here.”
If not, Denman knows Baker is about as rare as they come.
“His shoes are going to be difficult to fill. I’m sure going to miss him a lot,” Denman said. “In Cloquet wrestling’s history, I’ve been honored to coach a lot of good wrestlers. There have only been a small handful of great ones. And Jake is one of those great ones.”