BAKER — Sometime around noon on Thursday, in the visitor's locker room at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Baker head football coach Matt Brunson will look his Gators in their eyes and deliver one final goose-bump inflicting speech for the 2016 season.
With or without his trademark megaphone, the coach may touch on a range of topics: How the Gators' defense has overhauled itself into one of the Emerald Coast's best units. How this season's Gators can become the school's first 14-0 outfit. How state-power Pahokee, the Gators' opponent, has won six state championships and plays in the glitz and glam of South Florida football.
But Brunson chose a different motivational tactic on Tuesday after the Gators walkthrough at Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium. Instead of a rousing speech, the coach read aloud a message written by a Baker Area Youth Association third grade football player.
“Baker is going to state!!! Baker is not going to lose,” the message declared. “They are going to fight. They have to win. They have already played and pushed through difficult times. They’re fast. They have the strength to do it. So tell coach Brunson to read this to them, that way they know they can do it.
“We want them to win it and we want it BAD!!”
At Orlando’s Camping World Stadium at noon on Thursday, the Gators (13-0) will vie for that 1A state title against the No. 1-seed Blue Devils (13-0). The six-time state champion Blue Devils and four-time state champion Gators, who last won a title in 1993, will square off in just one of two Florida football state championship games this season that features two undefeated teams.
“This is the pinnacle of high school football,” Baker running back Jalen Ciurleo said. “We’re going to go out there and play with our hair on fire.”
Said Baker receiver Derek Peoples Jr., “We’re going to have our hands full, but if we play like we’re capable, anything can happen.”
On its road to Orlando, Pahokee has won three home games against a gauntlet of opponents: No. 5 Newberry (35-34), No. 4 Trenton (47-28) and No. 2 Madison County (21-19).
“It’s been a brutal playoff run,” Blue Devils first-year head coach Orson Walkes told the Palm Beach Post.
During its regular season, Pahokee beat archrival Glades Central in what’s known as The Muck Bowl, which, in 2009, ESPN ranked as Florida's top high school football rivalry game. The Blue Devils also beat New Jersey state champion Wayne Hills.
But Baker seemed confident at its Tuesday walkthrough. One player was overheard talking about how Baker assistant coach Rusty Oglesby had a dream the Gators beat Pahokee 35-7. Brunson asked the players, regardless of the game's result, how many he could attend a Thursday dinner at Dave & Buster's.
The Gators focused on third-and-seven conversions while also practicing substitutions, special teams and trick plays, among other areas. Defensively, the overarching message from Baker coaches was the Gators must prevent the Blue Devils from making big plays.
One coach wore a shirt that read, “Toughness. Tempo. Finish.”
Thursday's matchup will be a battle between Pahokee's high-scoring, run-first offense (31 points per game) and Baker's drastically improved defense (10.5 points allowed per game this season compared to 27 points per game last year).
Pahokee running back Rodney McKay scored two touchdowns against Madison County last week. However, the Blue Devils top playmakers are senior receivers Tyron Arnett (a Rivals two-star recruit with offers from Bowling Green, Charlotte and Duquesne) and Adarius Dent (offer from Middle Tennessee). Blue Devils quarterback Tyrone Smith, a week after throwing four touchdowns and 276 yards against Trenton, threw three interceptions against Madison County last week.
“At the beginning of the year we really didn’t think our defense would be good,” Baker linebacker Zach Brown said. “But once we started playing together and became a brotherhood, we knew we were going to go out and be the baddest ones on the field and play like a defense should.”
For Baker, Brunson told his offense (which has averaged 40 points per game) that tempo will be key in leveling the playing field. Pahokee has allowed 16.8 points per game this season but has given up its two highest point totals of the season in the playoffs.
“I think we’ve played at a very high level,” Brunson said. We’ve peaked at the right time. We’ve played a lot of games and we’ve played some games well, but we’ve got to have the perfect storm in the state finals. For us to be successful, I think that’s what it’s going to take.
“I think it’ll be a war. I think it’ll be a great high school football game. We’ve had a great week and a half of preparation. But these guys have prepared well all year and have played awesome. I expect nothing less from them in the state finals.”
So here are the Baker Gators, one victory away from a state championship. In the way stands a powerhouse — a team that plays its home games at Anquan Boldin Stadium and boasts Boldin, NFL Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson and current NFL players Janoris Jenkins and Pernell McPhee as alumni.
But the tradition at Baker shines as well. Signs in multiple places at Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium honor the Gators’ “Legends of the Swamp” state champions from 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1993.
On one sign, under the four state championships, two state runner-ups and 15 district titles are two words: Who’s next?
That will be determined Thursday.
Said the linebacker Brown, who noted he's wanted to play football at Baker since he saw his dad's Baker '98 letterman jacket, “To play for a state championship is a dream come true.”