Since last winter, Kirkwood senior Christian Baker has been a high school distance runner on a mission.

Baker has been training to overcome last season’s disappointing 29th-place finish at the 2017 Class 4 Missouri State Cross Country Championships at Oak Hills Golf Course in Jefferson City. He missed earning a medal by four places.

“This year I’m a lot more prepared,” he said.

Baker, a four-time state qualifier, is one of the favorites to win his final 5,000-kilometer cross country race on the same course he experienced last year’s disappointment. Just as important, Kirkwood is also a contender for the state team crown.

“It’s time for redemption,” Baker said. “I’m hoping to run a great race, get a medal and finish in the top five.”

Though Kirkwood has had its share of top-flight runners earn state medals throughout the years, the Pioneers have never had an individual state champion. The highest finisher has been Steve Williamson, who placed third at the 1996 state race. As a team, the Pioneers have never earned a plaque. The top four team finishers earn trophies.

But Kirkwood has the team to walk away with a trophy this year, especially after the Pioneers finished second at the Sectional 1 meet on Oct. 27 at a hilly Big Driver Golf Course in Washington. The Pioneers finished with 50 points – three points fewer than champion Lafayette.

Baker’s other teammates – AJ Wallach, Martin Strong, Jacob Ewen and Jacob White – also have a chance to earn state medals. Baker won the sectional race in a time of 16 minutes, 30.71 seconds. Wallach placed third in a time of 16:39.72, followed by Ewen (12th, 16:55.96), White (21st, 17:08.40) and Strong (31st, 17:17.42).

“We’re going to state as a team to continue this success,” Kirkwood Coach Wayne Baldwin said. “Their hard work and success is deserved. They have taken it to a new level. Overall, it probably is my best team.”

But Baldwin isn’t in the prediction business: “We’ll get to the starting line and start running.”

The 5-foot-11, 140-pound Baker said he’s ready to compete against the state’s best. He’s feeling confident, and prepared to leave every ounce of energy on the course. Baker’s personal record and area’s best time is 15:22.13, which he ran at the District 2 race on Oct. 20 at Francis Park. He said he hopes to better that time at the state meet.

Baker has won every race in Missouri this fall. His only blemish came on Sept. 22 at the Chile Pepper Festival on the campus of University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He finished fifth against some of the best runners from several different states.

Coach Baldwin commended Baker for his hard work and dedication.

“He’s an outstanding athlete,” said Baldwin, now in his 36th season as Kirkwood’s head coach. “He has legitimate speed. He can measure his own performance and rises to challenges. He’s thorough and pays attention to his competition. He’s disciplined and humble, and he’s got humility.”

After his disappointing state cross country finish last year, Baker took his off season training more seriously. He trained and ran indoor track meets. He had a successful track season last spring, where he became the first Kirkwood runner to win the Class 4 state 3,200-meter race. Baker and Strong helped the Pioneers take the Class 4 state 3,200 relay for the first time since 1996. Strong also won the state 800 race.

After track season, he logged between 500 and 600 miles over the summer to prepare for this fall’s season.

“Even after state (track), we decided to put in the miles and have our best year,” Baker said. “We want to be the ones on the podium.”