The 2021 season was Ayden Baker’s first and final one playing high school football.
While those around the Wheeling Central Catholic program were left wishing they’d gotten to see him for several more seasons in a Maroon Knights’ uniform, a lack of experience did little to limit Baker, who played football through middle school before deciding to devote his attention to basketball.
Upon his return to the gridiron, all the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Baker did was earn a spot on the Class A all-state team as a defensive lineman with 70 tackles, 13.5 of which were made behind the line of scrimmage, and 10 sacks. Baker also intercepted one pass and forced a fumble.
He used his athleticism to provide an element of versatility to the defense, while Baker’s strength often created mismatches and allowed him to be a pivotal blocker on offense as a tight end.
Those characteristics also benefitted Baker in his recruitment to play football at the next level. Although that recruitment was essentially non-existent a calendar year ago, it culminated with Baker settling on Columbia University of the Ivy League when he signed with the Lions in the winter.
“Columbia became interested right after I got my first offer from Brown University. Once you get in touch with one of the Ivys, they all kind of come look your way,” Baker noted. “After I went up and took a look on my official visit, I really liked it. I ended up choosing Columbia almost right off the bat. As soon as I left my official, I committed.”
Baker did not play basketball as a senior after helping lead the Maroon Knights’ football squad to a 9-4 season that ended in a Class A semifinal.
He originally thought a 20-16 loss at Ritchie County in late November 2021 would be his final high school football game.
Then Baker heard from Musselman head coach Brian Thomas, who was serving in that same role for the North Bears in the annual North-South Football Classic held last Saturday at South Charleston High School.
Thomas wanted to gauge Baker’s interest in playing a final prep football game for the North, and the Maroon Knight had no reservations about it so long as he was permitted to play, which not all college signees are.
“When I got chosen for the North-South game, coach Thomas hit me up, and I said, ‘I’d love to, but I have to talk to my coaches first.’ I gave them a call and they told me I was good to go,” Baker said.
Baker was the only Wheeling Central player in the North-South Football Classic. Despite being largely unfamiliar with Thomas before the event, the two are now connected.
“Ayden Baker is going on to play Division I football and he’s the most polite young man,” Thomas said. “Every time I saw him, he was talking to his teammates and getting to know the guys in the room. Blown away by the talent, but more so the kind of people they are.”
The opportunity to meet other standout seniors and coaches from across the Mountain State, as well as represent Central a final time, was something Baker relished.
“It’s really cool coming down here and meeting all those guys,” Baker said. “I’m the only one here from Central, but there’s a couple guys here from my area. Being the only one from my school, I was able to meet a lot of new guys and get outside of my own personal bubble and form connections with some dudes.”
As Baker prepares to start college, he is set to major in political science on a pre-law track.
“I’m going to be a lawyer eventually,” Baker said.
Although only a few players in the North-South Football Classic had a somewhat similar stature to him, Baker knows that won’t be the case at the next level.
Thus, much of his offseason and continued summer focus has been on best preparing himself to handle the rigors that come with being a defensive end in college.
“Staying in the weight room is No. 1 for me right now,” Baker said. “I’m working on my agility and making sure my legs stay fresh. Developing more quickness and all that stuff just to really kind of try and set myself apart as a freshman.”