Bailing out of her hometown bright and early the morning after Christmas, 2017 Bayfield High School graduate Kyle Baker began focusing her thoughts on this Saturday's upcoming dip down to Denton, Texas.
Call it a holiday rust-buster, call it a challenge, just don't expect her to call Oklahoma Panhandle State University's visit to University of North Texas' 10,500-capacity Super Pit an "exhibition."
Though it's listed on the team schedule as an exhibition, it's so much more for a freshman reminded through every drive just how driven she is to prolong her basketball career at any level.
"It started in first grade, playing for Parks and Rec," she said, recalling her first time experiencing the sport. "Mom just figured I probably needed something to do, she signed me up, and it just went on!"
"I love the game with all my heart. After 14 years it, grows on you. You don't want it to stop."
Four years with a BHS program in flux (meaning two varsity head coaches, a 17-65 overall record and 3-35 mark in regular-season 3A Intermountain League work), couldn't make her quit.
"Junior year, it took a hit on me," Baker admitted of being moved to the junior varisty team. "But that's what made me grow as I learned that being on a lower team doesn't mean you're a lower player. I've gained, grown up, teaching those JV girls I got to play with different things."
Three words - anterior cruciate ligament - known to end many a career couldn't even make her quit, and she heard them from a doctor not once, but twice, before her junior season began and after the Wolverines came off an 0-20 campaign.
"Freshman year, I tore my left ACL and I played for two more weeks," she recalled, "and then ended up tearing my left meniscus. Had surgery, did rehab for nine months, came back the next year-sophomore year-tore my right ACL. Had surgery again, and then just kept playing with it!"
"Love of the game..."
And that, probably more so than anything (senior-year norms of 6.2 points, 3 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.6 assists per game included), is what led the 5'8" guard/forward to OPSU. Her first season, like the trademark braces she wears on each leg, reinforced her to keep going.
Not as a player-yet; tryouts will take place after the season concludes-but as a first-year Student Assistant Coach in Goodwell, Okla.
"I'd applied to play and stuff, but they called me and said they didn't have any room on the roster but they had a spot to student-coach," said Baker, whose older sister Rickie also attends Panhandle. "And they said that on the application, I'd said I want to coach when I'm older, so they said this could be my foot in the door, help me with that."
"And then they called me, early May, I believe, and my opportunity struck and I took it!"
"They have me helping out in practice with different drills, and during the games I take stats and stuff like that. Somanager-wise, it's almost the same," she continued. "But you learn a lot more when you're on the bench listening to the coaches' conversations, hearing what they think and everything."
And so far, there's obviously been more positives than negatives.
With Baker part of an all-new braintrust including boss Victor Esparza, the Aggies will tip off (at 3 p.m. Central) against the aforementioned Mean Green already standing 7-2 overall, 1-2 in the NAIA Div. I Sooner Athletic Conference.
"The players love him," Baker said of Esparza, whom she likens to longtime Ignacio boys' Coach Chris Valdez, "and this season has gone great so far. We're going to keep pushing forward, and it's just going to keep getting better."
"And even though I'm only 19 and learning how to coach and everything, when you know the game it just makes it so much easier for everybody else to understand it as well."
"Kyle has been a great asset to our program; she's a great kid and enjoys being around the game," said Esparza. "She's been a great help to our program not only in practice but on game days. She has a bright future ahead of her and we're excited to have her in our program."
Following the trip to UNT (8-3, 0-0 Conference USA), the Aggies will ring in 2018 with action Jan. 4 in Muskogee, Okla., at Bacone College, and Jan. 6 in Siloam Springs, Ark., at John Brown University.
Winners of their first five games before a 53-point wake-up call at ORU on Nov. 17, OPSU will then welcome Oklahoma City-based Mid-America Christian University into Anchor D Arena at Oscar Williams Field House on Jan. 11.
Nine days and three games later, Panhandle State will leave Goodwell to go toe-to-toe with preseason #1 and nine-time (including 2017) NAIA Div. I National Champion Oklahoma City University in what could be a memorable SAC showdown.
"It's a dream come true-just being part of a college team in basketball," stated Baker, who noted an interest in pursuing special-education studies academically. "I've wanted this since I was little-bitty, and now that I'm here, I love it! I gave everything to God through high school, through the surgeries and everything, and He led me here."
"I was like, 'I don't know what I'm going to do, but sign me up! I'll do it!' It's definitely a learning experience, but.for sure it's one of the best opportunities I've gotten."
COLORADO CONNECTION: Northwestern Oklahoma State, which Baker had considered before communications dissipated, has zero Centennial Staters on its roster. OPSU's, however, includes 5'10" freshman Bree-ann Carwin from Pritchett and the South Baca County (which finished 21-4 last winter and placed third at the Class 1A State Championships) Lady Patriot co-op. Earning partial 'Colorado credit,' 5'11" junior Hannah Faulks of Hollis, Okla., played previously at Trinidad State Junior College.