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Hopi (Arizona) High School’s Baker Builds Cross Country Dynasty

By Nate Perry on May 10, 2021 hst Print

Rick Baker has become one of the most successful boys cross country coaches in the nation since his arrival at Hopi High School in Keams Canyon, Arizona in 1987.

Three years later, Baker led Hopi to its first state boys cross country championship, and his teams didn’t lose another state title until 2017 – a streak of 27 consecutive team championships. The 27 consecutive state cross country titles is a national record and is third all-time when considering all sports (girls swimming and boys swimming).

Baker’s 1999 team scored a perfect 15, which means Hopi runners finished 1-2-3-4-5. Perhaps most amazing about the streak is that Hopi continued to win despite moving into larger classifications. Hopi won 11 straight 2A titles (1990-2000), six consecutive 3A titles (2001-2006) and 10 straight 4A titles (2007-16). Since the streak ended, Hopi has finished runner-up the past three years. Baker started coaching the girls cross country team three years ago and has led his teams to two second-place finishes.

He has also coached Hopi’s boys basketball team for 18 years, with a 2A state title in 1997, and the girls and boys track and field teams for the past 10 years. Nine of his track and field athletes have won individual state titles. During his days as a high school athlete, Baker was Arizona’s one-mile champion in 1977 while attending Winslow High School, and he was a member of Winslow’s state cross country team in 1976.

In recognition of these amazing accomplishments, Baker will be inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame July 1 at the NFHS Summer Meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Question: When did you know that you wanted to become a coach?

Baker: I would have to say back in high school – maybe even earlier than that in junior high when I started getting involved in athletics here on the Hopi Reservation and having my coaches as mentors.

Question: After you graduated from Central Oklahoma in 1982, what ultimately led to your decision to return to northeast Arizona and start the cross country program at Hopi High School?

Baker: Back when I was in high school, we didn’t have a high school out here on the Hopi Reservation. There were talks that they were going to build a high school out here, but it never came about till 1987, after I had graduated from college. When the school opened, it was my chance to come back and coach at the high school level, which was something that I wanted. It was my dream job to come back to the reservation and help our next generation of kids coming up. It was perfect timing for me to get into the high school, which is now Hopi Junior Senior High School, and it has been a perfect fit for me, and I’ve been there for 33 years now.

Question: You started Hopi’s cross country program in 1987 and won the first of 27 consecutive cross country state championships in 1990. How were you able to elevate the program so quickly and then maintain that level of consistency over almost three decades?

Baker: I think a lot of credit goes to the runners, the kids that came out for the team. I just guided them and told them, “this is what we’re going to do; this is where we’re going to go; and hopefully someday we can capture a state title.” I think with those types of expectations and those team goals that we set, the kids buy into it. And after you win your first state title, then you win your second, your third, and by the time you win your fifth, I think the kids that come into the program just have that expectation now, and they don’t want to be the team to lose the state title streak. The thing is, I think, just keeping them motivated. Just talking to them, not just about winning the state title, but being champions in life and having them continue their career in whatever career they choose after they graduate from high school.

Question: In not wanting to be “the team that breaks the streak,” there’s obviously a lot of pressure that comes with that and the proverbial ‘target on your back’ gets bigger and bigger. How did you help your kids manage that element of pressure, or was it something you all embraced?

Baker: I think it’s something that we embraced. We knew that we had that target on our back and we knew that if anybody was going to take the state trophy they had to come through Hopi. That’s the kind of talk that I give to our kids: “We can’t let our guard down no matter what we do. Everybody’s shooting for us no matter what size classification we’re in. We’re the team to beat, and in order to be a great team, this is what we have to do. This is how we have to train. This is how we have to act. This is how we have to carry ourselves – with that champion mentality. We can’t be afraid to work out. No matter how tough the workout is, we have to be there, and we have to do it. And that includes everyone being accountable, including me, as a coach. I have to do my part, too.” So, I think the important thing has been having everybody buy into that philosophy that we have here with Hopi cross country.

Question: “Nahongvita” is a word that has been associated with your program for many years, whether it be used by you, members of the team, or your dedicated supporters. What does the word mean, and how did it become an adopted mantra for your teams?

Baker: Nahongvita is a Hopi word, and it really fits in with the cross country program because in a lot of our cultural ceremonies that we have, the elders use that word. Nahongvita means like to dig really deep, deep down in your soul; no matter how tired you are, no matter how you feel physically or mentally, you have to find that strength somewhere within you. And that strength comes by our spiritual prayers that we do. So, it really fits right in with our cross country program because we train so hard, we race so hard, that we use this word as motivation to find that inner strength somewhere very deep in there. The harder you train, hopefully, the easier the race is going to be, and Nahongvita is a really, really strong, special word that we use as hope.

Question: Running holds a great historical and cultural significance among the Hopi people, bearing connections to a number of ancestral practices including prayer, hunting, messaging and competition between villages, as well as physical wellness. What does that significance mean to you personally, and how have you incorporated it into your coaching style/philosophy?

Baker: Growing up out here in the 60s, a lot of our cultural ceremonies were really strong yet. My grandpa and my uncles and my dad, they really drilled it into my head that physical activity is really a big part of our Hopi tradition. Going planting is one of the things that we’re getting ready for now in the spring, and that is really, really hard work, going to the fields. And then the ceremonies that we have are geared toward asking for moisture in the form of rain and snow. That’s kind of what I relay on to the kids that I coach, that we are running more than just for the state trophy. We’re running for survival, so that our tribe can survive into the next generation, into the next century. And we do that by learning how to be a hard worker. I tell the kids, “don’t ask for an easy life. Ask for a strong life.” And that’s kind of what being a Hopi is about is having that strong life and just surviving out here. Our ancestors found ways for us to survive out here. So, I do talk to our kids about that, that there is more to it than just winning the medals and the state titles. We’re running for our lives. When we lost our state title three years ago, it was really hard and I had to find a different way to get through to the kids, and that was mainly what I talked about.

Question: You also coached the boys basketball team at Hopi and won a state championship over your 18 years in that role, and mentored nine individual state champions as the track and field coach. What made you decide to get involved with other sports and was that always a part of your plan?

Baker: I grew up playing different sports. I really enjoyed basketball, and that’s also a big sport out here at Hopi. When the opportunity came to coach boys basketball, I applied and got hired, and we took that team to the state title in 1997, I believe. But just being involved with various sports growing up, that interest (in coaching other sports) was always there. And I applied the same methods, same techniques, same coaching style that I did in cross country to basketball, and we’ve had some really talented kids while I’ve coached. So, yeah, it was a big part of my plan. I always wanted to be a head basketball coach, and when I got the opportunity, I jumped at it. A lot of the same kids that run cross country play basketball, and then track, too. And then those nine state title winners, some of them won like three or four state titles while they were here at Hopi, and those kids were really talented. You still coach them, and you still talk to them, and it’s just icing on the cake when you win a team state title and then also have individual state champions.

Question: Obviously, your title at Hopi High School is “coach,” but how would you describe your role and your responsibilities to the students, parents and the community of Keams Canyon?

Baker: As a coach, I think you have a lot of roles, but I think I’m a servant. I like to look at myself as a servant because I serve these kids and their parents and the community. As Hopis, we’re taught to be humble, and that’s a big part of my philosophy. Once you win a state title or you’re successful at something, there’s always somebody to remind you that you’re a Hopi, that you have responsibilities back at the village, back at home. So, in that way, I think I serve these kids. I’m an educator – I’ve been doing this for 36 years now. I think that’s what I am. And then I’m also a father figure to some of these kids. I give them advice and I talk to them when they need someone to talk to. And to some of them I’m a mentor. So, there are just various roles that I play as a coach. I think it’s really important how you carry yourself, how you talk to these kids, and to give them that encouragement, that support. These are kids from our villages, they are kids of my classmates, they are kids of some of my former students, so I really like to take care of these kids. I look out for their well-being, and hopefully they’re successful once they get out of high school.

Question: How have you been able to accomplish that while helping your students navigate the numerous potential obstacles found on the Hopi Native American Reservation?

Baker: We do have a lot of obstacles out here being isolated on the reservation. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much access to the outside world. We also have a big problem with alcohol, and we have some problems with drugs also. So, as a coach, I have to talk to (students) almost daily about that the choices that they make. “Is this the right choice for you?” “Is this a positive choice?” I’m always talking to them about making the right choices so they can succeed in life, and that involves a daily talk about alcohol and drugs. And then a lot of us – and that includes me – didn’t grow up with many materialistic things as kids, so I try to tell them that those things aren’t really important. (The important thing is) you’re alive. You have a life – let’s get an education and move on from here so that you can be successful and achieve whatever success is for you.

Question: As a Native American, what does it mean to you to have had such a strong positive influence on future generations of Hopi tribe members?

Baker: I think a lot of it is just modeling. I am not a perfect person, but if I can do positive things in my life, these kids can see that just like I did with the coaches I had at Winslow, Haskell and at Central Oklahoma. All these coaches I had modeled positive characteristics that I picked up, and that is what I want to relay to the kids that I work with. It’s really, really important how you carry yourself, how you treat people, and just being that role model. And then I also use some of my former runners who went on and ran in college and graduated from college, and I use them as role models, too, to tell the kids, “this is what you can do. These guys did this, so there’s a good chance that you’re going to be successful in life also.”

Question: Have you stopped to reflect at all on the magnitude of what you and your program have accomplished – the national record for consecutive state championships, winning championships in three different classes during that streak, the perfect “15” team score, etc.?

Baker: Recently, I have. I had never really thought about it because I try to be as humble as I can be. Then you start getting these National Coach of the Year and all these accolades and you do start reflecting. I had a former runner come up to me after we won our 27th (championship) and he says, “you know what, coach? You got more state titles than I have years. I am 25 years old, and you’ve been winning state titles longer than I’ve been alive.” That kind of put it in perspective for me, like, “yeah, wow, it has been 27 years and it has been 27 state titles.” You just don’t really realize it during that time. When I used to talk to the kids back then I would tell them, “hey, we want to put this record so far out there that nobody touches it.” To me, that was just talk, trying to motivate the kids, but when it really comes to realization, it’s like, “maybe these kids were really listening to me.” So, I do reflect, and it’s just amazing to think about it and wonder if that record is going to ever be broken.

Question: Looking back on your entire coaching career – all the awards you’ve earned, those that have been claimed by your athletes, the many lives you’ve affected – what are you most proud of?

Baker: Wow, that’s a tough one. Well, of course, winning the state titles, but I think the thing I’m most proud of with this is that I got to coach my two sons to state titles. I never really thought about it, but I think that’s what I’m really proud of – that I got to coach my own sons to state titles. Every one of these kids is important to me; I treat them all like my sons. And for the school and for the community to be proud of our program, and to have taken it to where it’s at now, I think that’s also a big part of what I’m proud of.