The sixth man behind an entire starting lineup of seniors, Matt Baker is the key piece in the future of Kouts basketball.
But for a team with designs on a deep post-season run ending in Indianapolis, the 6-foot sophomore guard is also an important part of the present for the Class A Sectonal 49 champion Mustangs.
"I'm not really thinking about next year. Let's see what happens this year," Baker said earlier this season. "It's been great to play with these guys. It's just fun to play. When we run, it's really fun. When we get in slow games, it's not as fun, but we're still a good team. I just play my role when I get in there, rebound when I can, hit the open shots."
On a roster where the first five all average between 25 and 29 minutes, Baker provides a break at the guard spot and also can help out inside, pulling down four boards a game on the average.
"We always tell our guys, you've got a job to do, do your job, not somebody else's," Mustangs coach Kevin Duzan said. "Matt understands what his job is. It's to come in and make baskets when you're wide open and rebound. He's a good player. He gets in that corner, these guys find him and he's pretty good out there. Whether we start him or bring him off the bench, he plays the same way. He's got a lot to learn, but he's learned his place on this team. He knows his role and he plays it very well."
Baker laughs when he says one of his responsibilities is to stay out of the path of hard-driving senior guards Cale and Cole Wireman.
"I try not to get up top in their way," he said. "I just let them do their thing and fit in where I can."
That's how it was from the start for Baker, who moved to Kouts from Rossville when he was 6. He continuned to play AAU for a while in Lafayette and Indianapolis with 2023 prospect Drayvon Gibbs-Lawhorn before Gibbs-Lawhorn left McCutcheon following a big freshman season to play for Real Salt Lake City Basketball Academy in Utah.
"I was just a role player, like I still am," Baker said. "My dad knew some people, so it was like, play on this team, see how you fit in, see if you like it, if they like you. It was just a fit."
When the family came to Kouts, they built a half-court gym at the house on their three acres outside of town with a shootaway to rebound for Baker when no one else was around.
"We tore down the existing building and basketball seemed like it was going to be a thing for me the next couple years," Baker said. "Guys would come out and play. I was just a little seventh grader, but it helped me. Shooting was never really my thing. It was always just layups, up until seventh, eighth grade. Then eighth grade, all my freshman year, I'd just go out there after practice and shoot."
Baker's progress was slowed by injury toward the end of his eighth grade year. It was initially diagnosed as a sprain, which Baker just gutted out, but when it didn't heal, he went for an MRI that showed a bone chip in his heel and torn ligaments. He underwent surgery about a year ago.
"(Shooting) was about all I could do," he said. "I couldn't run the floor."
Though limited by the injury, he spent time playing with the Wiremans at their full-court gym in Wheatfield so they could get acclimated to each other.
"I'd go down there and work out with them every once in a while, so once I got into high school, it was pretty easy to fit in. Hunter and Parker (Kneifel), once they realized I could help them, theu really accepted me."
The numbers aren't eye-popping, a 4.5 scoring average with 16 3s coming into sectional weekend, but some of them have come in some big moments. He had a pair of treys in a 10-point outing against 2A Linton-Stockton at the holiday tournament and another in a one-point win over Gary 21st Century, when his steal and basket completed a big last-minute Kouts comeback.
"When you score 40, 10's a big deal," Duzan said of the Linton game. "It's taken him a while to get going, but he does a lot of good things. He played up there with us as a freshman, started a few a games because of injuries and things. He had some nice games. He's going to be our future. It takes more than one guy, but he's one we'll start with. At a small school, you ride those when you've got 'em. When they're gone, you move on to the next crew and try to make your way with them."
Washington Township's semfinal upset of 21st Century denied Kouts a shot at the team that knocked it out of the last two sectionals, but Saturday's title meant just as much.
"This year's gonna be the year," Baker said.
Off the court, Baker has a talent for racing. He started at 5 with go-karts, recording several wins and was track champ in 2018, racing against all ages in a Porsche 944 junk yard special in the Hornet Class at Shady Hill.
Matt Baker developed into a key sixth man this season for Class A Sectional 49
champion Kouts. (Photos by Kathy Kneifel)