ORLANDO — After 13 straight wins the Baker Gators and their faithful fans were used to winning and, more important, overcoming adversity.
Their path to get to the FHSAA state championship game on Thursday showcased their ability to fight the odds and prove experts wrong by making plays and shifting momentum when it mattered.
Their game in Orlando was a different situation. The Gators were playing a Pahokee team that hit harder and ran faster than any opponent they had faced.
In Pahokee’s win, Baker held their own in a way the scoreboard didn’t show.
The Pahokee Blue Devils hit the knees of senior fullback Nick Adams, which took him out of the game. One of those knees bent in the opposite direction. Yes, Nick was done, but he said the pain was worth it.
The Baker Gators committed several turnovers. Their defense, however, went back on the field and didn’t allow Pahokee to capitalize as much as they should have. They did their job. For the seniors, it was for one last time.
At halftime the pain on the Gators’ faces was visible, with several limping off the field, many grimaced from playing harder than they ever have. Baker hadn’t scored in the first half. After halftime, the Gator defense kept Pahokee from scoring on their initial drive, and answered back by scoring on a drive of their own, as if they had new life.
Baker made some mental mistakes in their turnovers and penalties. However, the Gators never committed a personal foul or got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Their opponents committed two facemasks, two unsportsmanlike conducts and an unnecessary roughness penalty.
The Baker fans who made the six-hour drive to Orlando never feigned enthusiasm despite their team never taking the lead. They kept up the words of encouragement and were on their feet for most of the game. Fans on the opposite side of the field, while cheering during Pahokee’s big plays, stayed seated when things didn’t go their way.
Pahokee had possession with a minute left in the game and a two-score lead. Instead of taking a knee in victory formation, they attempted another scoring drive. At game’s end, Baker was the first to line up for handshakes and stood waiting for several minutes for their opponents to do the same.
The Gators were understandably disappointed. Logan Rickmon, who capped off his career at Baker with a touchdown reception, cared more about his teammates than he did his own accomplishments. Senior Gators hugged their saddened underclassmen, comforting them, while also, in a way, passing the torch for the next season.
The Road to State is not an easy one. For this Baker senior class, they got further every year with three district championships and two regional championships. These Gators are not short of accomplishments.
Accomplishments like these are nothing, however, without having the class and heart it takes to be true champions.
Coach Matt Brunson had instilled that in his team ten-fold.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article included referenced speculation about the National Anthem. We've corrected the article.
Please keep comments civil. In the spirit of sportsmanship, both Baker and Pahokee's teams should take pride in one thing: making it to Orlando.