Baker University finished as the state’s best NAIA athletic program after fielding some of the nation’s most successful teams in the 2011-2012 academic year.
BU finished 31st overall in Wednesday’s final NAIA Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup Standings, an annual ranking of almost 200 schools based on 12 fall, winter and spring sports. Baker’s top-40 finish was its best in school history and higher than the other 11 other NAIA institutions in the state of Kansas.
“I think it is a remarkable accomplishment given how many great things have happened in the history of Baker athletics,” athletic director Theresa Yetmar said. “I’m extremely proud of our coaches leading the student athletes. I think it speaks to their hard work and dedication.”
The Wildcats were ranked No. 9 in the standings after the fall sports season with men’s and women’s soccer teams and men’s cross country teams making appearances at their respective national competitions. The men’s soccer team advanced to the Final Four and the women’s team made a run into the national tournament for the second straight year with an appearance in the the Elite Eight.
The men’s cross country team qualified for the national meet after edging Graceland University at the Heart of America Athletic Conference Championship. Baker finished 25th at the NAIA meet and was ranked No. 24 in the country to end the season.
The Wildcats’ success continued into the winter sports season as the wrestling and men’s basketball teams competed in their respective national tournaments. Four Wildcat wrestlers earned All-American honors led by Brandon Gebhardt, who finished as the national runner-up in the heavyweight division. Each of the 12 wrestlers who competed at the NAIA Championships won at least one match to help Baker finish 11th at the tournament.
The Baker men’s basketball team earned a berth to the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship for the first time since 1941. The Wildcats ended the season with a record of 21-12 under former head coach — and Kansas University player — Brett Ballard, who is now an assistant coach under fellow Jayhawk Danny Manning at Tulsa University.
Katie Thurbon and Stephanie Nelson, members of the BU women’s track and field team, also scored points at the NAIA Indoor Track and Field Championships to round out the Wildcats who participated in national competitions during the winter sports season.
The two track and field athletes continued their success into spring outdoor season as Thurbon was the national runner-up in the pole vault and Nelson became Baker’s first national champion since 1953 by winning the javelin. Tyler Sloan also scored points at the national meet to help the women’s team to a 12th place finish. On the men’s side, Jeremy Gathright earned All-American status at the outdoor national meet.
“I was just incredibly proud,” Baker president Pat Long said. “With every team, we showed improvement and made great strides, and our national rankings I think show that.”
The Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup Standings did not include a national championship from the Baker dance team, which won it all for the second consecutive year.
“I think any time that you experience the amount of success that (Baker) did, it is not hard to use that as a positive with recruiting future student athletes,” Andrew Patch, assistant director of athletics for events and finance, said. “Any time that you can say that you are one of the best sports programs in the state of Kansas and in (the Heart of America Athletic) conference, that speaks volumes.”