BAKER — Joe Brunson has always faced an uphill battle on the football field.
Being the son of Baker coach Matt Brunson — or any coach for that matter — comes with lofty expectations and a wealth of detractors.
Both have been constants seemingly since Joe was born. He said a newspaper article written just after he was born speculated he might one day become a great option quarterback.
But where some might have crumbled under the weight of expectation, Joe has used it to excel. That’s why he’s the Daily News Small Schools Offensive Football Player of the Year.
"Just carrying the name around, I feel like I need to perform at a different level than everybody else," he said. "It’s another opportunity to prove people wrong if they say I just play because I’m the coach’s son and stuff like that.
"That gets me to go at a different pace than everybody else."
And that’s not hyperbole.
Taking over as Baker’s lead back for reigning Player of the Year Junior McLaughlin, Joe toted the ball 283 times in 2019 for 2,288 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns.
Factoring in his four catches for 107 yards and three scores and 90 punt return yards, Joe totaled 2,485 all-purpose yards, all while playing every snap on defense.
"I knew for us to be successful, he was gonna have to put up some numbers," Matt Brunson said. "Now, you never know — when somebody carries the ball that much, toughness comes into question. Do they stay healthy? Can they take care of the ball? Can they finish games?
"He checked all the boxes, man."
So how did he do it? Like any good back, Joe credits his O-line. Dustin Oglesby, Gavin Vaccarello, Dylan LaFear, Carter Mason and Ethan Cadenhead paved the way for his success.
"We had, in my opinion, one of the best offensive lines we’ve had at Baker in a while and the best offensive line I’ve ever run behind," Joe said. "We spend pretty much 365 days a year together, and I’ve been with most of those guys since middle school."
Each helped fill the empty cleats McLaughlin left behind, Joe said. The entire offense stepped up to the challenge.
"I feel like a bunch of people had doubts about us coming into the season like we’re not gonna be near as good as we were just because we don’t have Junior," Joe said. "I kinda felt like I needed to prove people wrong."
With many on the Gators’ roster feeling the same way, that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality proved invaluable as the schedule got tougher down the stretch. Close games became an opportunity to quash any preconceived notion about who the Gators were.
Even Baker’s Final Four loss to Blountstown was a source of pride, given how much improvement the Gators showed in their second meeting of the year with the Tigers, holding them to just 21 points after allowing 33 in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference North Florida championship game.
Joe said he hopes the game is a stepping stone moving forward, the Gators still questing after that elusive state championship win despite five straight Final Four trips.
"Next year, I think we’re gonna be down a little bit in the offensive line side of things, so I feel like I need to step up as a leader mentally and physically with everybody," he said. "Not speak only with my words but with my actions.
"I need to be there for everybody, and with the 10th-graders moving up, we just gotta show them what varsity’s all about and form a good team bond and try to get back to Thanksgiving weekend again."