Freshman finds herself among OVC elite

Dominic Renzetti , Assistant Sports Editor

Sitting at the Ohio Valley Conference Cross Country Awards Banquet last Friday, Maria Baldwin was just trying to see who the top dogs of the conference were for the next day’s race. Little did she know, she was one of them.

As they began to read the list of accomplishments, they started to sound familiar.

“Before they said my name, and I was like, ‘oh, it could be that girl, it could be that girl,” Baldwin said. “I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually a little shaky. Is this really me?”

Baldwin, a freshman from Toluca, was named OVC Freshman of the Year in the women’s division. She is the first Eastern cross country athlete to earn the award since Erin O’Grady in 2006.

Baldwin started her season with a second place finish at the Walt Crawford Opener, held on the Panther Trail, and then followed up with a third place finish at the Bradley Intercollegiate.

At the Greater Louisville Cross Country Open, Baldwin finished 102nd in a field of 300 runners, featuring competitors from nationally ranked Wisconsin, as well as 15 other regionally ranked schools. Baldwin posted an OVC-freshman best 6K time of 22:29.7 at the Bradley Pink Classic before finishing 14th at the OVC championship in Oxford, Ala.

Baldwin said winning the award took her completely by surprise.

“It was a blessing in disguise for me,” she said. “I had no idea I was even in the running for it.”

Now that she knew she was one of the OVC’s top dogs, Baldwin said she still didn’t feel any pressure at the race the next day, knowing that her competitors knew she was a member of the conference elite. In fact, it never even crossed her mind.

“I never really thought about that,” she said. “I’m someone who is good with pressure. I just try to focus on myself and my team and doing good for my team and myself. I don’t really focus on others unless they’re right next to me and I’m trying to race them.”

Baldwin also set her sights on another goal: being named all-conference, which she was.

Baldwin, along with teammates Emily Brelsfoard and Victoria Quarton, were named to the All-OVC Second Team.

Baldwin said she started running competitively in the seventh grade after competing in other sports like basketball, softball, volleyball and cheerleading. She said she’s a natural competitor. So, running suited her well.

“I love racing, I love being competitive, I love the feeling of achieving your goals,” she said. “Nothing can be more personal than running. You can set a goal in a workout. You can set a goal in a run and you can achieve that goal and feel amazing. No feeling is more amazing than running fast for your team and running fast for yourself as well.”

Baldwin said she’s happy to see all of her hard work from the summer and the fall paying off. As a team, the Panthers finished in second place in the OVC behind perennial powerhouse Eastern Kentucky. She said gunning for a championship is next year’s goal, something the Panthers have not been able to do since 2011.

Next weekend, Baldwin heads back to the Newman Golf Course in Peoria for the NCAA Midwest Regional, the same place where she set her top 6K time last month. Baldwin said her legs are feeling a little tired after the conference meet, but a week’s worth of rest will give her time to recover. She said one of her goals for the NCAA Midwest Regional is to bring her 6K time of 22:29.7 down even further.

The top two teams and top four individuals not on those teams receive automatic spots in the NCAA Championship.  At-large teams and individuals will be announced following the completion of all nine NCAA Regional championships.

The NCAA Championship is set for Nov. 22 in Terre Haute, Ind., at the Gibson Cross Country Course.

Dominic Renzetti can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].