Five years ago, Katie Baker had her heart broken.
The former Lake City basketball standout, who led the Timberwolves to a state championship her junior season, had her heart set on playing at Gonzaga University.
“For the longest time I was a Zag girl,” the University of Montana senior explained. “We had season tickets on the front row and went to every game. I played in all the (high school) tournaments and camps there. I thought for the longest time I’d go to Gonzaga.”
Then, as Baker said, God closed the door.
“It was really hard at first,” she said of not being recruited by Gonzaga. “But God had better plans for me.”
It involved going back to her roots in Montana. She was born in Hamilton, about 45 miles south of Missoula, and lived there until she was 4 years old when her family moved to Coeur d’Alene.
She had other offers to play in college, including an opportunity to play at Princeton. But she felt the pull to the Big Sky state.
Baker is, admittedly, a cowgirl at heart.
“Probably,” she said, laughing, during a telephone interview Wednesday. “I had a chance to go to Princeton, but my dad told me I couldn’t wear a cowboy hat in Jersey. Montana really is where my heart is.”
Baker returns to Gonzaga for the second time in three years when the 13th-seeded and Big Sky Conference tournament champion Grizzlies take on the third-seeded Georgia Bulldogs in an NCAA tournament opener today.
She played basketball at Lake City but never attended the CdA school. She attended nearby Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, which didn’t offer the sport at the time, for academic reasons. She was able to play at LC since her family lived within the school’s boundaries.
Baker has had an overly satisfying final season at Montana. The Big Sky Conference’s coaches unanimously named her the most valuable player. She averages 13.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
The honor humbled Baker.
“I didn’t have the best stats in the league,” Baker said. “It’s humbling that the other coaches thought kindly of me and voted for me. I appreciate it so much. It’s something really special.”
The 6-foot-1 Baker made a seamless transition to Montana. She was in the midst of an outstanding freshman season when she suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament.
It was the first major injury in her career. She had to go four months following surgery before she could begin running.
“That was hard, especially being told I couldn’t play basketball for eight months,” she said. “Looking back, I wouldn’t change it. It made me so much stronger. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience under my belt.”
Adversity, though, wouldn’t end there.
In the middle of her sophomore season, Baker had to have an appendectomy. Doctors told her she’d be out up to three weeks; she returned in 10 days and helped lead UM to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a fun journey,” she said. “I’ve had many ups and downs, but I’ve grown a lot as a person most of all.”
Her college career could end today.
“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “It’s so surreal, especially when you get used to something. You make a life out of basketball for so long and to have it all just ending, it’s unbelievable. It’s gone by so fast.”
Baker, who’ll graduate in May with a degree in exercise science, hopes to play professionally overseas.