Lily Baker took several huge strides forward this cross-country season, and as a result, she ended up leading Columbus North to a state championship.

The junior, who was the Bull Dogs’ No. 3 runner most of last season, spent most of this year as North’s No. 1 runner. She won the regional title and finished eighth individually at the state finals to earn The Republic Girls Cross-Country Runner of the Year honors.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic
Columbus North junior Lily Baker is the 2021 Republic Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.

“Lily really stepped up midseason, late season and ran No. 1 for us,” North coach Rick Sluder said. “She just did an incredible job of continuing to get better as the season went on and really just running to her potential. She had a good (personal record) coming into this season, and we kind of slotted her in as a top-15 girl in the state and she exceeded that just a little bit. She finally realized how good that could be and really just reached what I think was her ultimate potential.”

Baker lowered her personal-best 5K time three times this season. She ran 18 minutes, 15 seconds at North’s Rick Weinheimer Classic at Ceraland, then 18:10 at Brown County’s Eagle Classic. She came through with an 18:03 in the regional at Ceraland.

“I’m really happy with my season,” Baker said. “I PRed several times. My times kept going down, and I was happy with that, and I’m really happy with how our team ran and I think it was a great season for us.”

Baker’s time of 18:42.5 at state came on a much tougher LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course that had been softened by rain the week of the meet.

“I’m happy with my state race,” Baker said. “I would have liked a faster time, but I don’t think with the quality of the course and not really running two weeks before state because of my foot, I think if maybe if I would have practiced that week, I might have had a better race. But the course was a mess.”

Baker set herself up for her breakout cross-country season with a solid track season last spring. She was a state qualifier in the 800 meters and anchored the Bull Dogs’ 4×800 relay team to a third-place finish at state.

This fall, Baker turned her attention to the 5K that is contested in cross-country.

“I don’t think it was that big of a jump just because cross-country has been more of my thing until the 800,” Baker said. “So it wasn’t that big of a difference. Sometimes, I was wishing I was running an 800 instead of a 5K.”

In the spring, Baker wants to wants to better her personal records of 2:16 in the 800 and 5:11 in the 1,600.

“We’ve already talked about big track goals and the things we want to achieve in track and head that right into cross-country,” Sluder said. “She’s already been good, she’s already been successful, and I think this is kind of that next step for her.”

Next fall, Baker wants to win another state team title again and finish higher than her eighth-place individual finish from this year. She wants to run in college, but is just beginning to start the search process.

“I used to not really think that I wanted to,” Baker said. “But with how I’ve done this season has made me think that I actually want to.”

The Republic 2021 All-Area Girls Cross-Country team

Lily Baker, Columbus North: The junior won the North regional title and finished eighth at state.

Julia Kiesler, Columbus North: The junior finished second in the regional, won the Brown County semistate and finished 11th at state.

Brianna Newell, Columbus North: The junior finished third in the regional, third at semistate and 26th at state.

Katherine Rumsey, Columbus North: The senior finished seventh in the regional, 22nd at semistate and 36th at state.

Abby Jacobi, Columbus North: The senior finished sixth in the regional, 27th at semistate and 61st at state.

Sydney Morlok, Columbus North: The junior finished eighth in the regional, 29th at semistate and 62nd at state.

Alyssa Green, Columbus North: The senior finished 29th in the regional, 24th at semistate and 121st at state.

Ellen White, Columbus North: The junior finished second in the Brown County Sectional and 39th at semistate.

Jessica Meza, Columbus North: The junior finished third in the Brown County Sectional.

Hadley Gradolf, Brown County: The junior won the Brown County Sectional and finished fourth in the regional, 13th at semistate and 23rd at state.

Halle Franks, Jennings County: The junior finished fifth in the Austin Sectional, 10th in the regional and 42nd at semistate.

Chloe Krueger, Columbus East: The junior finished fifth in the Brown County Sectional, 17th in the regional and 82nd at semistate.

Honorable mention

Brown County: Kayleigh Austin. Columbus East: Victoria Cuhadar, Kerigan Greathouse, Laurel Knight, Carly Otte, Olivia Shoaf, Jordan Spurgeon. Columbus North: Charley Kerber, Nicole Meza, Sierra Newell, Emily Titus, Claire Wisler. Hauser: Amanda Steward, Callie Swegman. Jennings County: Elizabeth Evans, Grace Gambrel, Sarah Poole, Avery Willhite. South Decatur: Kate Hamilton.