WRESTLING: Baker recalls state title 25 years later

Gilroy High's Kordell Baker, left, was the school's first state

Kordell Baker never needed the pomp and circumstance he received following his state championship in 1987 – the first such title for an esteemed program rich with tradition and success. To him, wrestling was always about the work, the effort and ultimately his education. But on Wednesday night, Baker joined 37 other GHS wrestling alumni for a walk down memory lane as the group was honored in a pre-dual meet ceremony on center mat at GHS.
“The dynamics of Gilroy, it’s great for wrestling. These country kids are tough,” Baker said. “I’m glad to be back.”
With three kids of his own now, and as a firefighter for the city of Santa Clara, the jam-packed scheduled hasn’t allowed Baker to return to Gilroy High in about 10 years, he said. It took a little coaxing from longtime friend and one-time teammate on traveling teams, GHS principal Marco Sanchez, but Baker accepted the offer to participate in the Alumni Night festivities as the 25th anniversary of Baker’s accomplishment approaches.
Baker came up through the Gilroy Hawks wrestling club, wrestled at South Valley Middle School under the tutelage of Jim Fahey and Bert Mar and arrived at GHS, joining the team then-coached by Chuck Ogle. He began to make waves his junior season, finishing runner up in the Central Coast Section and qualifying for the 1986 state finals as a 138-pounder. He suffered a knee injury during his semifinals bout, however and was to forfeit the finals.
“It was tough to forfeit,” Baker said. “But I still had one more year. If I was a senior, it would’ve been a no-brainer. I would’ve taped it up and go.”
The choice paid off one year later.
“A lot of people weren’t happy about it. But he hurt himself pretty severe in the semifinals,” Ogle recalled. “As the coach, I had to do the right thing and protect him. I guarantee, if he would’ve wrestled in the finals, he was going to need surgery, because that guy would’ve tried to tear his knee up.”
Baker ended up not needing surgery, allowing the knee to heal on its own. With a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Baker returned to the finals in 1987 – in tow a CCS championship as well – and put on a memorable performance.
“I remember it. It’s 25 years ago, but I remember it,” Baker said, gazing off a bit and allowing a slight grin to form. “It was against a guy from Overfelt. We had lined up in the finals at Mid Cals that same year. I beat him in overtime because I couldn’t perform in front of the hometown crowd. The (state) finals went like it should have. I can’t remember the score, but it was a dominant match.”
His opponent was Armando Delgado. He beat him 9-0. It made the Dispatch’s front-page. His reaction then? As modest as ever, which came to be expected of the star.
“Coach had banners up for me, and I didn’t even go to school that Monday,” Baker said as he continued to rehash the whirlwind week. “I stayed home and rested because I was pretty beat up from the tournament. I felt good about what I accomplished, but I didn’t feel like I needed to be at school and show off.
“I don’t really like attention and stuff. I just came in, worked hard and got to business. It was nice having that team though, because without that team to support you, you can’t do it. That team influence was there always.”
Baker received a full scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where a neck injury – one that limits his range of motion to the left – sidelined him his junior and senior season.
“I don’t have any nagging pain though,” he said.
He graduated with a industrial engineering degree and spent the next six years in Japan studying the language, earning a pair of black belts in Judo and working as a custom furniture maker.
Before Baker’s back-to-back state finals, only four Mustangs had placed at state – Rudy Perales (4th, 1982), Victor Cobos (3rd, 1984), Mike Gilroy (5th, 1984) and Cobos again (5th, 1985). And since his championship, Gilroy has had 25 different state placers and four state champions. Hunter Collins and Martin Gonzalez were the first since Baker to do it in 2008. Gonzalez repeated as champ the following year and was joined at the top of the podium by Jesse Delgado. Jasmine Yanez won a girls state crown in 2011. Collins, Delgado and Gonzalez are also four-time state medalists.
“Even then, Gilroy had such a great program. It’s amazing they didn’t have state champions before him,” Ogle said. “There were guys who were ranked high in state, but when they got to the state meet, they just didn’t have whatever it took to finish it off. So for him to come through and be that dominant – we are talking dominant – he took care of breaking the ice. And look at this now.”

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