BY DAVID HUGHES
TERRE HAUTE —
As a Charlestown High School senior in 2009, Justin Baxtron placed 11th in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the boys’ track and field state finals.
He did OK, but not well enough for any NCAA Division I universities to offer him an athletic scholarship.
So Baxtron pondered his future in the sport and finally made his decision after talking to his high school coach, an Indiana State University alum named Adam Kemple.
Kemple recommended that Baxtron consider going to ISU, even without a scholarship.
So Baxtron followed his advice.
“I checked it out and I thought I’d try to earn my spot on the team,” he recalled.
ISU men’s coach John McNichols agreed to let Baxtron on the team as a freshman walk-on in the fall of 2009 and he’s glad he did.
Over the years, Baxtron worked hard and steadily improved, so much that he captured the Missouri Valley Conference outdoor championship in the men’s 200 as a junior in 2012.
Now that the 2013 indoor season has started, the Sycamores’ 5-foot-6, 145-pound senior wants to finish his running career with a bang.
“I had my third-fastest indoor time ever in the 200 at Purdue [on Jan. 19] and it’s still early in the season,” Baxtron told the Tribune-Star. “With the help of my teammates and coaches, I know I can have the confidence to pretty much do anything.”
His 2013 goals are not modest — win MVC indoor and outdoor championships and be named All-MVC (top three) in the 60 dash indoors and 100 dash outdoors. He’d also like to help the ISU 4-by-100 relay team qualify for the NCAA finals.
ISU sprints and relays coach Geoff Wayton learned in 2012 that he shouldn’t doubt Baxtron when he sets goals.
“Last year, he exceeded my expectations,” Wayton admitted. “He ran faster than I ever thought he could run in the 60 [indoors]. Then he ran faster than I ever thought he could in the 200 — indoors and out.”
Although Baxtron demonstrated a serious work ethic and competed hard as a freshman in 2009-10, he didn’t make anyone on the ISU coaching staff think he was destined to become a future standout.
“His first year, he did not score in the conference meet for us,” McNichols noted. “But he did score a lot of points during the regular season. He was pretty steady and stayed healthy and he had a pretty good year.”
“He was truly average,” Wayton reflected. “When he came here, he was doing a few crucial things wrong, technique-wise, but he was just young.
“What he’s done [since then] is approach sprinting with the same point of view as a distance runner. He does all the little things and he’s been so consistent. He’s really methodical about his diet and the weight room. … He’s real passionate about making gains in the weight room. … He’s very detail-oriented.”
With a year of college training under his belt, Baxtron started turning some heads as a sophomore.
“In the indoor conference, I didn’t score,” Baxtron mentioned. “I wanted to show the coaches that I wasn’t that person, that I wanted to try harder, that I could potentially help this team. So at the outdoor conference [championships] of 2011, I finally ran some decent times. That’s when I made scholarship and I scored in the conference as well.”
The NCAA allows only 12.6 scholarships for men’s track and 18 for women’s track per season, so McNichols doesn’t hand out scholarships like they’re candy. But Baxtron proved during his sophomore season that he deserved one.
“With many talented athletes coming out of high school, there just isn’t scholarship money for all of them,” McNichols explained. “Justin came to us as a walk-on from Charlestown. His high school coach encouraged Justin to take a good look at us. Then he came in and Coach Wayton’s done an excellent job with him.
“His sophomore year on, he’s made a greater impact. Last year, it kinda culminated at the [MVC] outdoor meet with his win in the 200. Going in, Wichita State was highly favored to win the team championship. They had like a 50-point lead on us going into the second day. Then slowly, event by event, our guys performed at a high level and we slowly ran ‘em down. Justin’s win in the 200, along with a teammate’s third-place finish, kinda put the final nails in Wichita State’s coffin.”
In the MVC indoor championships, Baxtron placed fifth in the 60 (6.99 seconds) and second in the 200 (career-best 21.75 seconds) after leading most of the race.
“When I saw I had the potential to win [a conference championship] and the opportunity, I trained even harder for the outdoor season,” he said. “I went all out, then me and my teammate Andrew Stull [third place] were able to become All-MVC.”
Yes, in the MVC outdoor championships at Wichita, Kan., Baxtron won the 200 in a career-best time of 21.42 and he finished second in the 100 in a career-best 10.49 while also helping the Sycamores claim the team title.
“He’s the kind of story that coaches love to tell,” McNichols insisted. “He comes in, works hard and does everything he’s supposed to do, then he succeeds. Justin Baxtron will be someone we’ll talk about for years to come as we’re recruiting other [high school] kids who have a fair level of talent but aren’t quite ready for a scholarship.
“He’s also a good student, so that’s a plus. He’s a little bit of an intellectual type. He’s a writer. He writes poetry sometimes. He’s a quiet kid, but he’s been a very positive influence on the team. He’s very supportive of his teammates.”
Wayton said the other ISU sprinters “kinda follow Justin’s lead.”
While coaching ISU’s current athletes for the indoor and outdoor seasons, Wayton also is helping recruit for next season when Baxtron will no longer be competing.
“He’s the blueprint for the kind of kid that I want,” Wayton said in respect of Baxtron.
But for now, Baxtron is focused on performing better than ever during the 2013 indoor and outdoor seasons.
“This year at our first meet [the Eastern Illinois dual meet on Dec. 7], he ran a great time in the 60 — 6.96 — right behind [2012 Summer Olympic hurdler and ISU teammate] Greggmar Swift [6.81],” McNichols mentioned.
McNichols said Indiana State rarely uses Swift in “flat” races that don’t involve hurdles, adding that he isn’t sure if he’ll enter Swift in the 60 at the MVC indoor championships Feb. 23-24 at Cedar Falls, Iowa.
So not counting Swift, Baxtron owned the conference’s fastest 60 time and he had the second-fastest 200 time entering this past weekend.
Looking ahead, McNichols believes winning MVC indoor (60 and 200) and outdoor championships (100 and 200) in 2013 would be a fitting end to Baxtron’s track career.
“Everybody’s not an NCAA champion,” McNichols summarized, “but he’s had a very good Division I experience and he’s a contributor on a good Division I track team.”
After the season, there will be no more competitive running for Baxtron, who majors in English and information technology and wants to become a technical writer after he graduates in 2014.
“I think this is it for me,” he said. “I’ve been running since the third grade. That’s about 13 years now, so I think this will be it and I’ve got to make the most of it.”