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Seeing and believing

3/27/2013

By DIANE GASPER-O’BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Ask a college basketball player one shining moment he or she most treasures from a particular season, and you might be able to guess the correct answer.

A winning basket? A timely rebound or assist? A snazzy defensive play?

Not for Ron Baker.

Baker, a 2011 graduate of Scott Community High School, is a red-shirt freshman guard who starts for the Wichita State University Shockers.

He played a significant role in his team's upsetting No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Saturday's third round of the NCAA tournament.

His 16 points, including four 3-pointers, that tied him for team-high scoring honors helped the Shockers advance to the Sweet 16 vs. La Salle in this week's West Regional in Los Angeles.

But it was neither a 3-pointer, nor a rebound or assist or deflection, that topped Baker's list of memorable moments thus far in his young collegiate career.

"To get to hug your mom on national TV," Baker said of the celebration that followed Saturday's monumental victory. "That's something."

Just like in every home game this year, as well as a few away games, Baker's mom, Ranae, and his dad, Neil -- who grew up in Ness County and played baseball for Fort Hays State University -- will be in the stands at the Staples Center for Thursday's contest vs. La Salle.

So, too, will be younger sister, Audrey, a freshman at Kansas State University, and younger brother Sloan, a high school sophomore at Scott City.

They won't be the only Scott City residents following the Shockers, though.

If Wichita State's domination of Pittsburgh in the second round didn't get people's attention last Thursday, their upset of top-seeded Gonzaga two days later surely did.

Baker, who led Scott City to the Class 3A state title his senior year, had two other Division I offers out of high school, but both were out of state.

Wichita State offered him the chance to stay close to home.

"We can be on the road by 2:45 (p.m.), and in the coliseum by 6:50," Neil Baker said of the frequent trip to Koch Arena on the Wichita State campus.

Now, the Baker family doesn't mind making longer trips for games that are televised for those back home.

"The thing that surprised me was how many alumni from Scott City (contacted him) to say how proud of me they were, putting Scott City on the map," Baker said of the overwhelming support he received following Saturday's big upset. "I'm really glad my whole hometown gets to watch these games on TV."

Townspeople in Scott City are so excited they are having a pep rally at the high school Thursday morning and will be providing T-shirts with Baker's photo on them. And Mayor Don Goodman even is reading a proclamation declaring Thursday "Ron Baker Day."

Those close to Baker aren't surprised by his success on the basketball court.

After all, he was born during March Madness, making his entrance into the world at Hays Medical Center during regional finals week of the NCAA Tournament on March 30, 1993.

Fans aren't surprised by Baker's humility, either. In fact, the back of the T-shirts for purchase Thursday in Scott City say "A Humble Kid" on the back.

"A really good kid, comes from a good family," Goodman said. "He's not ego-driven, just really competitive."

One of Baker's biggest fans is in the Shockers' locker room, one who has known the WSU standout for several years.

Drew Hertel from Hays is a manager for the Shocker men's team and interacts with Baker daily.

Hertel, a 2009 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, played against Baker in high school. That was when Hertel was a 6-foot, 4-inch senior and Baker was a sophomore not yet 6 feet tall.

Even then, Hertel said he could tell Baker was going to be a solid player.

"He was more of a role player as a sophomore," Hertel said. "But even then, he was a great 3-point shooter, a great foul shooter, a great defensive player. Now, it's pretty cool to see a western Kansas kid turn into such a good college player."

These days, Baker is listed at 6-3 and 218 pounds, approximately 20 pounds heavier than his high school days.

"No doubt the redshirt season is what helped him get to where he is today," Baker's dad said.

His oldest son agreed.

"It was tough to sit out and watch," Baker said of his red-shirt year. "But I got a lot stronger, developed a lot better basketball-wise."

What makes the Shockers' success this season even more gratifying for Baker and his family is his comeback from a stress fracture in his foot that made him miss 21 games. It was the first serious injury of his entire athletic career that held Baker out of action.

After the stress fracture was diagnosed in mid-December, Baker missed the rest of the regular season.

He returned in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tourney, where the Shockers advanced to the title game. Although it lost to Creighton in the MVC championship game, Wichita State received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament -- and took full advantage of the opportunity.

Creighton lost to Duke in the third round of the Midwest Regional and now is watching the rest of the tournament on TV.

If the Bluejays flip their channel to TBS at 9 p.m. Thursday, they will be able to catch the Wichita State-La Salle game at the Staples Center.

A victory over La Salle would put the Shockers into Saturday's Elite Eight. And no matter the outcome of that game, Baker no doubt would find his mom after the final buzzer and give her a hug.

On national TV.

What a way to celebrate your 20th birthday.