ORLANDO — Heads lowered, trots slowed, two quarters of frustration was evident as the Baker Gators left the field for the halftime locker room down 14-0 to Pahokee at Camping World Stadium.
This was the look of dejection in the Class 1A state championship game, the summation of three turnovers and a failure to punch in a first-and-goal opportunity at the 1-yard line in the waning seconds of the first half.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Gators on Thursday afternoon, including a game-ending injury to Nick Adams on the game’s second play.
But, showing the Gators’ resolve, Baker never folded. Never gave up. Never lost hope that the program’s first 14-0 season and first state title since 1993 wasn’t within reach.
Baker center Gabe Vicario scored on a fortuitous bounce in the third quarter and Kalee Ciurleo narrowed the deficit to 21-14 in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard bootleg, but Pahokee always had an answer in a 34-21 win before an announced attendance of 3,870.
Rodney McKay rushed for two touchdowns, Tyrone Smith passed for 232 yards and a score, and the Blue Devils’ defense forced four turnovers, including a pick-six by Roy Walker with 4:27 left to seal the win. That clutch defensive play followed a Jim-Travis Gray 1-yard plunge into the end zone in the fourth quarter to turn a 21-14 lead into a two-possession game.
“We made a few errors in the first half, but the kids played hard, closed the gap there in the second half and made a game of it,” Baker head coach Matt Brunson said. “The bottom line is (Pahokee) just made more plays than we did.
“But 13-1 is an amazing year. Our kids have no reason to hang their heads.”
It was the seventh state title and first since 2008 for Pahokee, which holds the Florida record for most championships by a public school. And their defense was chiefly responsible, sacking Kalee Ciurleo four times and holding Jalen Ciurleo and Junior McLaughlin — two 1,100-yard rushers — to just 93 total yards on 34 combined carries.
Jalen Ciurleo, who entered the game with 1,625 rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, was held to 65 yards rushing and 67 yards receiving with no touchdowns. McLaughlin, who had 40 carries for 432 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs, rushed for just 28 yards on 15 carries and was held out of the end zone.
The 126 rushing yards were 178 below Baker’s per-game average. That helped deny Baker’s fifth state title following championships from 1983-85 and 1993.
But the Gators did win the second half.
After forcing a turnover on downs to start the second half at Pahokee’s 40-yard line, Baker got the bounce of a lifetime to cut the deficit in half. Kalee Ciurleo was sacked for the fourth time just inside Pahokee’s 10, the ball flying loose toward the 5-yard line. Vicari pounced, recovered the loose ball, kept his legs churning and took four or five tacklers into the end zone.
“When I first got it, I just kept moving my feet toward the end zone,” said the 6-foot, 230-pound junior. “When they tackled me, I was in the end zone and I looked up and all the Baker fans were cheering. I knew I had scored. But I wasn’t excited about that. I was just focused on winning.”
As was the case all afternoon, Pahokee had an answer. Facing a second-and-17 from midfield, Tyron Arnett hauled in an unbelievable 49-yard touchdown strike from Smith up the right sideline. Two Baker players appeared in position to make the play on the completion, but Smith emerged and tiptoed the sideline to push the lead to 21-7 at the end of the third quarter.
Baker’s response? I see your score and raise you an 80-yard drive.
Marching 79 yards to Pahokee’s 1-yard line, Kalee Ciurleo took the snap on fourth-and-1 and ran a bootleg route to the left to trim the lead to 21-14.
“Our goal was to win the third quarter and then finish it in the fourth,” Brunson said. “I felt like we won the third and put ourselves in position with that touchdown.”
The Gators did, to be fair. But the defense just couldn’t contain a balanced Pahokee offense that had 25 rushes for 88 yards and completed 15 of 21 passes for 232 yards.
Gray’s 1-yard touchdown run pushed the lead to two possessions midway through the fourth quarter and Walker’s pick-six proved to be the final nail in the coffin. Logan Rickmon’s 10-yard touchdown reception from Kalee Ciurleo — who ended the night with 152 passing yards, two touchdowns and four turnovers — with 1:09 left did nothing to change that.
“The guys, what can I say, they did what they’ve done all year and just continued to play hard and fight through adversity,” Brunson said. “They played to the final whistle. I couldn’t be more proud.
“I love those young men.”