Michael J Baker; The Venerable Voice Of Vermont Wrestling
Michael J “Mike” Baker; The venerable voice of Vermont wrestling or as he likes to put it, “Just another day in the gym”, has been a fixture on the Vermont wrestling scene since 1968. Mike, a Rochester, New York native and Hall of Fame coach is currently the Executive Director of the Vermont State Wrestling Tournament, the Vermont State Rep to the New England High School Wrestling Championships and even has an annual tournament named in his honor at Essex High School.
In the off season you’re likely to find him enjoying a round of golf at his winter residence in Venice FL. His low handicap is a reflection of his athletic prowess and golf is a replacement for the cold weather sports he used to enjoy in his earlier years. Although he lives at the base of the mountain in Bolton, Vt., as soon as the fall wrestling meetings are finished he migrates south for the winter season.
Let’s Go Back A Few Years
“Rochester was a small town of about 5000 people, but we had excellent sports programs.” As a sophomore in his local high school, “back in 1861” he jokes, Mike got cut from the basketball team and a few of his buddies convinced him to go out for wrestling. A natural talent, he was favored to win the sectionals his senior year at 165 but broke his finger and was out for the tourney. “That was a terrible year for me, athletically. I tore up my knee and missed the football season, broke my finger and missed the sectionals and had an operation on my knee in the spring and missed baseball.” After recovering he went on to play baseball for four years at Norwich University and although they didn’t have a formal wrestling program, they did have an intramural tourney which he won all four years.
Mike accepted a position at Mt. Mansfield in the fall of 1968, something Vermont wrestling fans can be thankful for. “They were looking for a teacher and someone to start a wrestling program and I thought that would be fun”. He instituted the program at MMU as a varsity team. There was a state championship that year but it wasn’t recognized by the VPA. Also that year, as well as the next, the states were held at Harwood and saw teams from Middlebury, Winooski, Lemoille and Stowe Prep. Mt. Anthony even came up for the states. Mike stayed at MMU for five years until he was lured away by Essex where he remained for the the next 30.
“My first year at Essex we had some great athletes and so we had a pretty good year, but most of them were seniors and when they graduated things went downhill a little bit. Also, we had no youth program so there were no young wrestlers coming up.” Mike formed a youth wrestling program but initially without help. “There was no one versed in wrestling at Essex High School so I pretty much had to do everything myself. But as time went on a few people got involved and then Blaine Isham came on board and we managed to build a pretty good program.”
I guess that’s somewhat of an understatement because in the ensuing years they managed 3 state championships and were runner-up 15 times.”I don’t think anyone’s going to beat that record,” he muses, “we were the best of all the rest.” Nonetheless he had a strong program with a lot of interest. “At one point we had a quite a few good athletes in the program and had almost 50 kids. I had to run one group right after school and Blaine had the other group from 5:30 till 7:30”
“It was great; we had talent and depth, never had a forfeit and always were able to put a full team on the mat.” It was also at that time that he introduced the traveling team to the schedule. “We started doing some traveling, wrestling in ‘out of state’ tournaments in Maine, New Hampshire, New York etc.” When asked if other teams were traveling as well he replied, “other teams were starting to pick up on it and there were some pretty strong programs in Middlebury and Spaulding and Ray Miro was just getting the Otter Valley program going which became successful.”
Flash Forward; 2014 Vermont State Wrestling Championships
As I sat at the state championships this year listening to the crisp, clear, succinct voice of Tournament Director and announcer Mike Baker, I came to wonder about how this role in the high school wrestling world came to pass. “It was really pretty simple. We had the states at Essex for many years, way more than any other school, we even had four New England tournaments there. I was in contact with the VPA constantly. Not to mention I’ve been on the wrestling committee FOREVER…so…after I retired I asked Bob Johnson who was the activities director if he wanted someone to run this thing and be responsible and he said he’d love it”
Although he’s not actually on it, one of Mike’s most critical functions as Tournament Director is overseeing the seeding committee. “There are five coaches on the committee; two from the north, two from the south and the host coach…and the seeding process is the most complicated of all the sports in Vermont. The coaches have to fill out a form for every kid listing every varsity match he’s wrestled that year. They turn the forms in to me and I organize them by weight class, then we have to go over each individual wrestler.”
He continued, “Its a long process that takes the better part of a day. We have to consider reigning champ, head to head competition, acknowledged good competition, common opponents, records, but we don’t count forfeits.”
“Fortunately most classes don’t go that deep so after the first five or six seeds there’s usually no discrepancies. But I can remember times when we used to have wrestle-offs for the 16th seed.”
“And invariably we make mistakes but that’s why we have a protest process. If any of the coaches feel that the seeding is incorrect then they submit it to us in writing before weigh-ins on the day of the tournament. It usually works out”.
“We try to go north/south in determining the location of the state championships. Keep in mind that everyone wants the states at their location because it’s such a good money maker. I’ve got five or six schools that expressed an interest in hosting the tourney next year. There’s no real criteria other than the gym needs to be large enough to accommodate two mats and there needs to be adequate locker room facilities for the kids to shower and change.”
“All of the gate receipts (after paying expenses) go to the VPA to run their programs. The host school gets to keep all of the concession money which is a considerable chunk of change.”
On Getting More Youth Participation In Wrestling
“Kids have made choices from the time that they’re young, and a lot of the time there’s parental influence, so I think it’s rare that you’ll see a kid jump from one sport to another. I still think wrestling is a buddy sport and if your friends wrestle then there’s a good chance that you’ll wrestle as well.”
“One thing I think we need to do is to get more football coaches on board. There are a few that realize the conditioning and strength training that wrestlers get and the benefits to their athletes, but most equate wrestling with weight loss and don’t want their kids to participate. Which is really too bad because it hurts both sports.”
“In order for kids to get to the top level of the sport they need to get more than just one season, and that’s true for any sport. I’m not against specialization per se, but Vermont is such a small state that we need good athletes to participate in two or three sports.”
“It’s like any sport now, with the advent of indoor venues, kids are playing soccer year round, lacrosse, hockey etc. and if that’s what you want to do then go for it. It just detracts from some of the other sports.”
If you ever wonder why the state tourneys run so smoothly, it’s from all of the experience that Mike Baker has garnered over the years. In 1996, Mike was inducted into the Wrestling USA Hall of Fame as Vermont Wrestling Man of the Year and has dedicated nearly half a century to the sport. So if you see him at a tourney sometime, shake his hand and say thanks for all that he’s done for Vermont wrestling!
Michael J Baker; The Venerable Voice Of Vermont Wrestling/Vermont Wrestler