Despite an illustrious career at Fairmont High that includes multiple conference titles and Shootout championships, the 54-year-old veteran coach has been chasing his return to regionals as a boys basketball coach for the last 19 years.
He’ll return to the hallowed floor Thursday night in the Crown Arena when the Golden Tornadoes (24-5) take on Jacksonville Northside (25-3) at 8:30. A win vaults Fairmont into Saturday’s regional final, one game away from the 2A state title game in Chapel Hill.
“It’s hard to get here because the further you advance in the playoffs, the tougher the competition becomes,” Baker said during Monday’s Eastern Regional luncheon in Fayetteville. “I’m just excited to be one of the final four teams still playing in our region. Our fans won’t have to travel far to see us play.”
Baker starred at Fairmont as a prep and was Robeson County’s player of the year in 1977 before finishing up his playing career as an All-American at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. He came back to coach the Golden Tornadoes after college and led Fairmont to a series of deep postseason runs before cutting down the nets in 1994.
Wesley Hinson, the father of current Fairmont sophomore Kwinton Hinson, was the MVP of the state championship win over West Caldwell with 30 points and 15 rebounds. That loaded squad from two decades ago had the “it” factor according to Baker and routinely squashed opposing teams by double digits.
They played with a confidence level that’s tough to replicate.
“The thing that separated that team from all the others I’ve coached was their focus,” Baker said. “The players absorbed everything we said as coaches and they expected to win.”
Led by a senior class that’s tallied 67 wins over the last three seasons, Baker hopes this year’s group is capable of adding to the trophy case if it can summon some of the magical juices that flowed in 1994.
Since falling behind by 19 points at halftime in a second-round win over Whiteville, Fairmont’s defense has reached a heightened level of dominance and held shooter-heavy Clinton to 55 points in the sectional final.
Defense has been the Golden Tornadoes’ focal point since Baker regained control of the program following a six-year hiatus in 2010. During that span, Fairmont has won three consecutive league titles and owns 39-2 record against teams from the Three Rivers Conference.
Eastern Regional play tips off Tuesday at two sites within the Crown Center complex. All 3A and 4A contests will be played inside the8,500-seat Crown Coliseum with smaller classifications getting the more cozy Crown Arena.
Site coordinator and former Robeson County athletic director Ronnie Chavis stressed the importance of “enjoying the moment” for participating players and coaches during Monday’s festivities.
“There are some great coaches in the state that have never been to regionals,” said Chavis, an NCHSAA Hall of Famer. “I tell everyone not to take this for granted. Kids will talk about this experience down the road and the memories last forever.”
Editor's note: A full Eastern Regional preview with matchups, storylines and pertinent gameday information will be published in Wednesday's The Robesonian.