Landen Baker put together an ambitious plan going into his junior year at Southern Nash High last summer. The three-sport athlete, who was an All-Big East Conference offensive lineman for the Firebirds as a sophomore, decided to sit out the 2021 fall season to focus on baseball. With many showcase events scheduled to play in front of college scouts, Baker just couldn’t make football fit into his schedule.
The results of Baker’s focus on baseball were obvious this spring. He was among the state leaders with 12 home runs while going 8-2 with 99 strikeouts in 13 appearances on the mound. Baker was named North Carolina Baseball Coaches Association 3-A Player of the Year as well as 2-A/3-A Big East Conference pitcher and player of the year.
Naturally, the attention he sought from college programs quickly followed. Last week, Baker, who played for the Wilson American Legion Post 13 baseball team this summer, announced he was verbally committing to Middle Tennessee State University of Conference USA.
“Well, some other schools in the same conference that Middle Tennessee is offered me and then I went up to Middle Tennessee,” Baker said of the school in Murfreesboro, about 35 miles southeast of Nashville. “I was playing (showcase) down in Georgia. I went down there on the visit, and they offered me down on the visit.”
The NCAA signing period for baseball will be later this year. The good news for Firebirds fans is that Baker, who also plays basketball at Southern Nash, will be back on the football field this year, which was part of his plan all along.
“Oh yeah, no, I was coming back my senior year,” he assured. “Honestly, halfway through not playing junior year, I wish I would have played but I know it was right for me right at the moment.”
CLARK RETURNS, BUT AT CBA
It’s not often a hall-of-fame coach comes out of retirement to take the job of a rival program but the circumstances were just right for Donald Clark to be the new girls tennis coach at C.B. Aycock.
The former Greene Central coaching legend who was inducted into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2020 retired as the Lady Rams coach in 2014. In his 26 seasons at Greene Central, Clark led the Lady Rams to a 427-162 record, 20 straight conference championships and state 2-A dual-team titles in 2005 and 2007 while appearing in seven other state finals.
He coached the boys team at Parrott Academy in Kinston for five years and has continued to stay highly active in Junior Team Tennis as a tournament director, among other duties. But Clark, now 64, said he was eager to get back into coaching girls tennis.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘I just don’t think I’ve got the bug for coaching girls tennis out of my system and I’m 64 years old,” Clark said. “I think this is a good good place, if I want to try it one more time.”
He wasn’t exactly looking for a job but when current Aycock principal Tod Morgan, who was the Greene Central boys basketball coach for a few years during Clark’s tenure, reached out, he was instantly interested.
“I told somebody that’s one of the few jobs in North Carolina I would even consider and I think in that final analysis, Principal Tod Morgan who had coached basketball at Greene Central and I worked with him for two or three years and I think a lot of him,” Clark said. “He’s just a good guy. “
Aycock has its own tennis tradition, started by former longtime head coach Luke Vail. The two programs were certainly rivals but never in the same conference, so it was more of a friendly rivalry.
“I learned so much about coaching tennis from Luke Vail,” Clark said. “I consider it an honor to be coaching at C.B. Aycock.”
However, Clark, who replaced outgoing Laura Romo at CBA, admitted he didn’t know much about the team he would inherit, other than the Golden Falcons went 5-10 last season. Clark will join a league that includes long-time coaching colleague Lee Matthews at Fike as well as Hunt’s Wayne Hardy, the top two teams in the 3-A Quad County Conference last fall.
“I think their top two players are solid,” he said of the Falcons’ lineup, before adding: “I have a feeling it’s probably going to be a rebuilding job, but it’s really good school that supports athletics and the tradition’s there in the program.”