Jeff Barker wasn’t looking to come home, but is sure glad he did.
You might not know much about the University of St. Francis in Joliet, but Barker is quietly making headlines and turning the program into a cross country powerhouse.
The Highland native and 1999 Bishop Noll grad led the Saints to the 2012 NAIA National Championship. The team has been ranked No. 1 in the top 25 poll the last nine weeks, so you could say it has a pretty good shot at adding another title later this month.
“The funny thing is we came into this season with five of our top seven (runners returning), but right now only two of them are (in the mix),” Barker said. “We now have three freshmen in the top seven. We had a great recruiting class. It’s like a brand-new team.”
Barker, who attended Our Lady of Grace in Highland and ran for Rick Torres at Bishop Noll, barely had time to unpack when he took over the job in 2012.
He said he took over the program on Aug. 6, the runners came in on Aug. 11 for camp, and they moved forward quickly with a new system he wanted to put in place. Barker said it was an adjustment period at first, because the kids really liked the former coach and the training styles were a bit different. But he’s got them all bought in now and the results are showing.
“The kids have really been receptive to changes,” said Barker, who coached at Andrean under Torres before moving to the college level. “Coach Torres is the one who got me into coaching. He’s been a great mentor.”
The program at the University of St. Francis is only seven years old, but Barker said he has about 30 runners, including freshman Alex Cordova (Hobart) and Jesse Unzueta (Thornwood), on the roster. Barker also coaches the women’s team and is the program’s track and field coach.
“We were home in Highland for the Fourth of July (in 2012) and I saw a posting on-line for the job,” Barker said. “I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a job open in Joliet and that’s a good program.’ I got the interview and the rest is history.”
Barker lives in Plainfield with his wife Alanna and 2-year-old daughter, Lynleigh. His parents, James and Deborah, still live in Highland, where Jeff commuted from last year before purchasing a home closer to work.
Barker actually started the program at Calumet College, a job he said he really liked and worked at from 2005-07, but it was only part-time. He landed a job at Fontbonne University, Division III school in St. Louis, and coached there from 2011-12. From 2007-2011, he coached at Kansas Wesleyan University. He was the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in women’s cross country in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In 2009, he led the women’s cross country team to the program’s first NAIA championship appearance and first NAIA top 25 ranking.
St. Francis is coming off Saturday’s Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship held at Sunset Hill Farm in Valparaiso. The Saints were edged 42-43 by No. 4 Olivet Nazarene.
Barker and his runners now gear up for the NAIA National Championship on Nov. 23 in Lawrence, Kan.
“We have a good shot, but the top five teams are all really good and really close,” Barker said.