SSU finds unique runner in Unioto’s Hacker

CHILLICOTHE — Finding a runner with Eric Hacker’s credentials is a rarity.

However, the Shawnee State cross country and track and field programs aren’t strangers to finding gems from a running standpoint.

Hacker, a top-notch student-athlete from Unioto High School in Chillicothe, will take his wide array of running skills to Shawnee State this coming fall — when the freshman-to-be lines up to race for the Bears during the 2020 academic year.

For the former Sherman Tank, the opportunity to run at the next level and pursue his academic field of choice is quite an honor.

“It means a lot,” Hacker said. “I got a lot of letters and emails from colleges all over, but Shawnee State offered my educational program and a great athletics experience to boot.”

An incredible runner in terms of stats alone, Hacker put together a high school career rivaled by very few across the Southeastern Ohio realm or the entire state, qualifying for the OHSAA Division II, Region 7 meet in all four of his seasons — and qualifying for the OHSAA Division II state championships in cross country in three of those four.

Hacker never finished lower than 17th in any of the Division II Southeast District cross country meets that he ran in during all four seasons of his high school career, and finished 11th (16:42), 30th (17:19) and 13th (16:40) at the Division II, Region 7 meet en route to qualifying for state in each of his last three years.

He finished 85th (17:10), 56th (17:32) and 31st (16:29) at the OHSAA Division II state championships over his final three seasons — propelling Unioto to finishes of 10th, sixth and second at the Division II level, from a team standpoint, from 2017 to 2019.

In track, Hacker added to his growing mantle of awards — winning the Scioto Valley Conference’s 4-by-800 meter relay crown as a sophomore alongside current Shawnee State sophomore-to-be Jonah Phillips, Jaden Watkins and Tucker Markko, and then adding an SVC runner-up showing in the grueling 3,200-meter run as a junior.

Hacker later ran a personal-best of 9:55.43 in the 3,200 at the Division II, Region 7 championships to qualify for his first OHSAA Division II state championship meet as a track athlete.

Hacker, however, wasn’t done accumulating accolades.

With times of 4:28.99 in the 1,500-meter run and 9:48.63 in the 3,000-meter run, Hacker was able to win the Adaptive Sports USA’s Junior National Championships in both events — a week-long national sport championship event for young athletes with a physical disability and/or a visual impairment.

“Running at Unioto was amazing,” Hacker said. “Growing up, I didn’t really know I was going to be successful at any sports, or really, in life. Running has really become my life, and changed me physically and mentally into who I am today. Unioto is a really great school in my eyes. (Unioto coach) Matt Paxton is like a second father to me. I ran for him for seven years. He has always been there to support me and help me with my training. He even drove around 10 hours from Ohio to Minnesota in order to watch me run. That’s just how he is, though. He helps any of the runners as much as he can.”

To top it all off, Hacker, who had cerebral palsy as a result of intrauterine growth retardation, overcame the struggles of an underdeveloped body from being born two months premature to a top-flight runner — all through determination and steadfast work.

He did all of this while maintaining high marks in the classroom, and as a result of his excellence, obtained the OHSAA Archie Griffin Sportsmanship Award for his stout character and personal performance.

“It was definitely a challenge,” Hacker said. “When I first started running, I had to wear my leg braces. Eventually, I just kept breaking them and one day I broke out of them completely. (Matt) Paxton’s always seen potential in me and has often told other members on the team to run for something. He gives the example that I’ve always felt like I have something to prove because of my obstacles. These last two years have really opened a lot of doors for me and helped grow me both as a person and athlete.”

At Shawnee State, Hacker is looking forward to learning from a coaching staff led by Eric Putnam — who has, without question, established himself as one of the best coaches nationally regardless of college division.

Putnam has led the men’s cross country program to nine conference championships in 10 years, while the women’s cross country program has won 10 consecutive Mid-South Conference Championships since joining the conference in 2010.

Putnam was also the key figure in Shawnee State’s ability to sponsor indoor and outdoor track and field programs for the first time — with both programs leading individuals such as Brad Liston, Adam Schroder, Joe Stewart, Seth Farmer, Steven Adams, Sarah Biehl, Anna Havranek, Brooke Smith and Jessica Price to NAIA National Championship berths in various events.

“Eric Putnam has seemed to be interested in me for a long time,” Hacker said. “He came to some of my cross country meets and watched me run. He would talk to me whenever I had a chance and ask how I was doing and how I think I ran. I think he will help me grow even more in college.”

As a whole, Hacker wants to help grow on Shawnee State’s tradition — both from an occupational therapy standpoint and from a running perspective — in order to help both programs reach another level on the rung.

“I’d like to complete my education and be as successful as I can athletically as well,” Hacker said. “I think that it would be great to try to leave it better than I found it on the athletic side.”

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