From Losing on Purpose to Region Champion, Point Beach Wrestler Jack Baker Has Redefined Himself
Walking off the mat following a dominant performance in the Region 6 Tournament 182-pound final was a wrestler finally realizing his potential, one who was now turning his talents into tangible results.
This isn’t the typical story of an athlete putting years of effort into reaching a goal and getting there in triumphant fashion, however. This is about growing up, about maturing, about figuring out what’s really important.
Jack Baker has stopped running from his problems and stopped pushing back against those trying to guide him in the right direction, and the result has been greatness on the wrestling mat as a senior at Point Beach.
“He’s pulled a 180,” said Point Beach head coach Jeff Bower. “Not just in the (wrestling) room, but in general, in school. He’s just been an absolute pleasure to coach and be around.”
If someone could have peered into a crystal ball some 15 months ago and told Baker how his senior year would play out, he never would have believed them. But mostly, he just wouldn’t have cared.
Baker grew up wrestling, but in eighth grade he’d had enough. He was disqualified from the Ocean/Monmouth/Middlesex Tri-County Tournament and had zero interest in competing in high school. Baker was the personification of a bumper sticker: He’d rather be surfing. He’d rather be skateboarding. He’d rather be doing anything else but wrestling or playing football.
But the choice to participate wasn’t his alone, so back to wrestling he went as a freshman for the Garnet Gulls. Living in the Baker household with his parents, John and Virginia, meant playing football, wrestling - doing something. Baker was a reluctant member of the team, but just barely.
“I really didn’t care,” Baker said. “I didn’t wrestle at all in the offseason. Freshman year I came in and was forced to do it. My parents said if I’m living here I have to do something. So I would go out there and get pinned purposely. I was basically rebelling against my parents and the sport.”
Baker wrestled primarily on the junior varsity team as a freshman 138-pounder, going 1-2 in the three varsity bouts he competed in. Even with the most apathetic of approaches toward the sport he still compiled a winning record as a sophomore, getting the bulk of the bouts at 170 pounds and finishing 17-7.
As a junior, Baker helped the Garnet Gulls win their first NJSIAA sectional title in program history by going 17-6 at 170 pounds. In the individual postseason he finished third at the District 23 Tournament and made a surprising run to a fourth-place finish at the Region 6 Tournament, coming one win away from qualifying for the state tournament.
Instead of lamenting his defeat that left him so close to reaching Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City and using that as a springboard for a rigorous offseason of preparation for next year, Baker was glad it was over. He had fulfilled his obligation and went back to skating quarter pipes and ripping up the beach breaks of the Jersey Shore.
There was still no desire to wrestle.
“It was really frustrating,” Bower said. “He was so talented and we knew it and I think he knew it, but he needed to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Slowly, Baker started to come around. He grew tired of being labeled a slacker and hearing people speak of him as a lost cause, as someone who wasted their talents. The summer of 2016 was when Baker had his life-altering epiphany.
“I got in trouble with some stuff and that’s when it finally clicked that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing,” Baker said. “I had friends telling me to pull myself together and focus on the stuff that is going to impact me later on in life. I always had my dad supporting me for it, and I woke up one morning and realized, 'Man, this is high school and I’m never going to get this back, so I might as well work my butt off and go hard.'''
“As a junior I ended up taking fourth in the region and I was like, ‘Wow, imagine what I could do if I actually trained and went to clubs like I used to when I was little.' I finally started caring and looking at it in a different way.”
Baker’s resurgence began with getting ready for football season. He didn’t play as a junior, but as a senior ended up being a key running back for the Garnet Gulls. A lifeguard in Mantoloking, Baker swam every day and did sprints, and hit the weight room when he wasn’t patrolling the local waters. Improving his cardiovascular endurance was his main focus. Baker is a prolific pinner, and that is partly because he never had the gas tank to wrestle effectively deep into bouts.
“I couldn’t even get past the first period so I would just go for the pin right away,” Baker said. “That was the way I would win matches.”
Bower is an assistant football coach, as well, so he noticed right away this was not the same Jack Baker he had come to know.
“We’re running sprints in the summer and this kid takes his shirt off and it’s like, ‘Oh my God,''' Bower said. “He was a year older, physically, but you could tell that kid spent a lot of time in the weight room. He’s put together, and that’s on him. He worked his butt off.”
Baker’s season senior began with him winning the TCNJ Pride Tournament and later taking the title at the Secaucus’s Patriot Invitational. The wins kept coming, through Point Beach’s win over Shore power Brick Memorial and in the Gulls’ run to a second straight Central Jersey Group I championship. His pin in the Group I semifinals helped Point Beach ultimately come within six points of taking down longtime Group I stalwart Kittatinny.
In the District 23 Tournament, Baker won by fall in his first two bouts before a 6-2 win over Hightstown’s Johnny Andre in the final gave him his first district championship. The Region 6 Tournament was more of the same with pins in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and an 8-2 win over Riverside’s Zeke Brinson in the championship bout to improve to 33-1. The victory made it two straight years Point Beach has had a region champ for just the second time in program history.
“I finally got my head straight and here I am, region champ,” Baker said.
Baker earned the No. 14 seed for this weekend’s NJSIAA State Tournament and will face Holy Spirit’s Michael Waszen, the Region 8 third-place finisher, in the first round on Friday afternoon. A win there will likely set him up versus Bound Brook’s George Walton, the state fourth-place finisher at 170 pounds last season, in the pre-quarterfinals. It’s a difficult draw, but Baker believes he can conclude his career with a state medal.
“There’s a possibility, I just have to prepare myself mentally,” Baker said. “Anyone down there can beat anyone, it all depends on who shows up and how well prepared you are mentally. I really believe if I go down there with the right attitude and have a week of hard work I can come out on top.”
“We are very excited to finally go where no one knows him,” Bower said. “He’s a pain in the butt if you don’t prepare for him. We’re very excited for him to be wrestling kids we haven’t seen yet.”
Baker has come a long way from losing on purpose four years ago. A sport he once despised has come back into his life and helped him turn the corner.
“I love wrestling now,” Baker said. “It gives me something to look forward to every day when I wake up getting ready to go for a run. Now I’m working toward something. It’s just different than it used to be. My parents are very pleased with me and the way my attitude has changed.”
“People always say as a coach you want to see boys turn into men, and this is an example of it,” Bower said. “Whether it was being immature or just not caring, he did completely change. Now he’s a great role model and a great kid inside and outside the room.”
There are times Baker wonders what his career would have been like if he stayed dedicated to wrestling through middle school and into high school. If he could go back in time and tell his eighth grade self to stick with wrestling, to let it remain alongside his other pursuits, he would do it in a heartbeat. Maybe the region title he won on Saturday would have been his second or third region medal. Perhaps the trip he’ll make to Atlantic City this weekend would be a familiar one.
“I wish I could go back to eighth grade year and do it all over, but I’m not dwelling on it,” Baker said. “I’m just looking toward the future right now. I’m going for it.”
Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.