Matt Baker a Maryville University wrestler and 2008 East graduate is being featured on NCAA “All Access”. In this video mini-series the NCAA selects a school and one of their athletes to do video blogs of their daily life. So far Baker has shot four videos, and he is continuing to shoot them weekly. After Baker shoots the videos, he submits them to one of his assistant coaches where they are passed on to “All Access” and posted to be viewed on the NCAA’s Website.
Currently Baker is a fourth-year junior, but his first three years of college were not spent at Maryville. After graduating from East in 2008, Baker began his wrestling career at Division II wrestling powerhouse, the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). Baker redshirted his freshman year, earned 24 wins the season after that and was a Division II All-American last season. After a national championship win in the 2010-11 season, UNO and head wrestling coach Mike Denney had won their third straight, and sixth out of the last eight Division II National Championships. Just hours after winning the national championship, Baker received a text from assistant coach Ron Higdon to return to their hotel as soon as possible.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” said Baker, “My first thought was that maybe someone had gotten hurt, but really I didn’t know what to expect.”
Nothing could have prepared the team for the news they were about to receive. After gathering in the lobby of their Kearney, Neb. hotel, the team was told that UNO athletic director Trev Alberts was proposing moving from Division II to Division I. If the school made the jump, they would join the Summit League which does not provide funding for football and wrestling, and therefore the programs would be cut. On the eve of their third consecutive national championship, a night that should have been spent celebrating, the UNO Mavericks were in utter disbelief.
“At that point I thought no way,” said Baker. “No way this could come true, there is no way they could let this happen.”
When the team made their return to Omaha, they began to organize any kind of student resistance they could muster up. Unfortunately, the resistance was a waste of time. Alberts had told Denney that the move was just a proposal, and nothing had been decided yet. But in reality, it was too late. Upon meeting with the wrestling and football teams for the first time, the decision had already been made; the programs were going to be cut.
Fortunately for Denney and his team, their success was admired and sought after by many other schools. Within a day of hearing the proposal, Denney was bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from schools interested in offering him a coaching job. However, one of the offers seemed to stand out from the rest. Maryville University, a private school in St. Louis did not have a wrestling team, but was highly interested in adding one. Jeff Miller, the vice president of Maryville made an offer for Denney, his coaching staff and the whole UNO team to make the move to Maryville. Upon hearing the offer, Baker and some of his teammates began to discuss it, and could not deny its appeal.
“I remember thinking, if we get enough guys, and the right guys, we can win a national championship next year,” said Baker.
Denney accepted the offer from Maryville, and the wrestlers began examining their options. Ideally, the whole team and the recruits they signed would have been able to make the move, but due to everyone’s individual academic and family needs this was not a reality. Being that Maryville is a private school, the tuition was also more than everyone can afford. Even after these hurdles, 12 of the 19 wrestlers on Maryville’s roster either wrestled at UNO or were incoming freshmen planning on wrestling there.
After figuring out who would be joining him in Maryville, Baker soon realized that a National Championship may not be in the cards for this season. But that does not mean that the future for Maryville’s program is not bright. On campus, the interest level in wrestling is high and gaining even more support. The roster is set with one of the top freshmen classes in the country and with leadership from upperclassmen like Baker they are getting better week by week. Three of these freshmen start, and have gotten first place finishes for the team at multiple meets this season. Denney says that he believes he has about eight years left of coaching, and Baker is confident that during his tenure Maryville will bring home a national championship.
“It probably won’t happen this year,” said Baker, “But Coach Denney will be able to in his time here, I have no doubts.”
For more on the cutting of UNO’s football and wrestling programs, check out the ESPN Outside the Lines report.