“It’s awesome to be playing on Thanksgiving weekend three years in a row, it’s a special time for these kids."
BAKER — For the third straight season, Baker will have to practice on Thanksgiving Day.
Junior McLaughlin rushed for 150 yards and added 87 receiving yards, and the Gators’ defense came up with two scores of its own as unbeaten Baker held off a tough Chipley squad 48-28 to win the Region 1-1A championship and advance to the Class 1A state semifinals.
The Gators (12-0) will play Blountstown next Friday at Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium.
“It’s awesome to be playing on Thanksgiving weekend three years in a row, it’s a special time for these kids,” Baker coach Matt Brunson said. “They played hard tonight and we overcame some adversity to beat a very good Chipley team.”
The Baker offense rolled up 334 yards of total offense, but it was the defense that stole the show, getting two defensive scores in the first half to set the tone.
“We created some turnovers last week, which was the difference in the game,” Brunson said. “Tonight, we created turnovers and scooped and scored. So that was awesome, two defensive scores early in the game definitely changed the momentum of the game. That was huge.”
The first defensive touchdown came after Chipley had scored to tie the game at 7-7, and it was Kalee Ciurleo doing the honors, picking off a Mason Cook pass and going 37 yards for the touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
The second was just a few plays later when Payton Rockwell picked up a Chipley fumble and ran 27 yards for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
Chipley answered that with a touchdown drive of its own to cut the lead to 21-14, but Ciurleo hooked up with Junior McLaughlin for the second time in the half to put Baker up 28-14.
Ciurleo was wearing his brother Jalen’s No. 8 jersey Friday night as a tribute. Jalen was injured a couple of weeks back, and Kalee said he wanted only to represent his brother on the field.
“I’m just sad that he can’t finish his senior year out on the field,” said Ciurleo, who threw for 131 yards and three touchdowns. “If he can’t finish it out, I’ll wear his jersey number for him.”
Chipley refused to go away in the second half, getting a touchdown on its opening possession of the third quarter to cut the lead to 28-21, but the Gators got a 12-yard touchdown run by Jayson Moore and Ciurleo hit Bryan Holley on a 13-yard TD strike to go up 41-21.
The Tigers cut that lead to 41-28 but the Gators put it away with a 7-yard touchdown run by McLaughlin, who finished the game with 150 yards on 24 carries.
“Our offensive line has played great all year,” Brunson said. “Now, we’ve tried the stretch the field vertically with our passing game, which we did a couple of times. But they are very athletic on the back end and we had to adjust. In the second half, we ran about three or four plays and we challenged our guys to block and they did a great job in the second half.”
The Gators will return home next week to play in a state semifinal game for the third straight year, with a trip to the Class 1A state title game on the line. Brunson said it’s a magical ride that the players don’t want to end.
“That’s special, we haven’t done it since 93-94-95, and we did in 83-84-85, I believe,” Brunson said. “To make three straight semifinal rounds is huge. Right now, we’re on a magical ride and I can promise you whoever comes in here next week, our kids will be playing hard.”