The Columbus East boys track team was about 10 minutes into its bus ride back from last week’s Connersville Regional when coach David Miller received a text from a meet official.
The official had some good news for Miller and the Olympians. Greenwood’s David Dalton, who had won the 1,600 meters, had decided to scratch from that event for the state meet to focus on the 3,200.
That meant the fourth-place finisher in the 1,600, East senior Paul Baker, had a chance to claim a qualifying spot to Saturday’s state finals.
The bus erupted in cheers.
“I had this feeling of excitement go through my body, knowing I worked hard all season, going from an event I wasn’t quite sure about (the 800) to jumping into the (1,600) two weeks before sectional,” Baker said. “I started blowing up my phone with text messages, saying I made it to state.”
Dalton ran 4 minutes, 15.68 seconds in the regional, ahead of 4:17.89 for Columbus North senior Kaden Eaton. Warren Central’s Matthew Egan edged Baker 4:25.76 to 4:26.55 for the third and final automatic qualifying spot.
But then after Dalton finished second behind North’s Andy Carr in the 3,200, he opted to drop the 1,600 so he could be fresh for the 3,200 at state.
“Seeing him placing second and running that well in the (3,200), I had a feeling he was probably going to drop,” Baker said. “But then looking at his time, I’m like ‘He has a possibility of winning the mile at state,’ so I wasn’t sure. I was real nervous after the race getting fourth because I knew my time probably wasn’t fast enough to get pulled up. So after the race, I was kind of walking around praying that he would scratch.”
Eaton, who didn’t find out about Dalton’s move until last weekend, was excited for Baker.
“Immediately, the first thing I thought when I heard that Dave wasn’t in it was ‘Oh wow, Paul was only a half-second out, so that means he’s in,’” Eaton said. “I’m excited for him to have that opportunity. I’ve talked to him quite a bit at races, and he’s a nice guy.
“Most people don’t typically think of East being a great distance school, so I think it’s a significant accomplishment for him to improve the way he has and make it to the state meet,” he added. “That’s a really big deal. It shows that his hard work has been paying off.”
Baker had been an 800 runner for most of his high school career before bumping up to the 1,600 about a month ago.
“A week before the conference meet, my time wasn’t dropping, so I decided to bump up to the (1,600) because when I finished the 800, I felt like I still had more to give,” Baker said. “My coach said ‘We’ll try you in the mile next week because if you feel like you can go farther longer, then we’ll try it. I came out the week before conference and ran a 4:34 by myself, so we knew there was still time to drop.”
The following week, Baker ran 4:30 to win the Hoosier Hills Conference meet. He then finished third in the North Sectional in 4:29.96 before trimming more than three seconds off his time at the regional.
“It was great for Paul,” Miller said. “Paul has worked hard, and he’s always been open to being moved around, going from the 800 to the (1,600). He’s well deserving.”
Dalton’s scratch could affect Eaton, as well. Dalton outkicked Eaton in both the sectional and regional and would have had the second-fastest time from among the state’s eight regionals.
Now, Eaton has the third-fastest time behind Kokomo’s Jeremy Breedlove (4:15.19) and Lawrence North’s Joe Murphy (4:16.96).
“All I can do is run my hardest race on Saturday and prepare for that this week,” Eaton said. “It’s going to be an awesome chance, and I look forward to getting together with all those fast guys in one race and seeing what I have.
“My goal all season has been to run a 4:15, so I guess that would still be my goal for a time,” he said. “I can’t control what anybody else is going to run on Saturday, but I know if I give it everything I have, I will be proud of that.”
Eaton finished 16th at state last season in 4:25.90. The Belmont recruit also has participated in the state cross-country meet three times.
“Kaden works hard at it, and experience comes into play,” North coach Lou Sipe said. “Obviously, he’s been there, so I think he has a great opportunity, and he’s going to take full advantage of that opportunity over in Bloomington. I’m excited to watch him run.”
Baker, who was the kicker on the Olympians’ Class 4A state championship football team, plans on kicking and running track at Trine. Saturday, he hopes to break the school record of 4:21 and contend for a spot in the top nine, which would earn him a medal. Baker is seeded 24th.
“I’m going to try and stick with Kaden as long as I can and hope something happens,” Baker said. “I figure if I can stick with Kaden or right behind him, I can get the record, hopefully. There’s a big bunch from 4:20 and 4:26, so I could place anywhere from ninth to 25th.”