The Baker School football team (10-1) beat Graceville (8-4) 35-21 on Friday, securing a spot in the Region 1-1A title game against Vernon.
BAKER — Joe Brunson wants you to know he meant to do that.
In a game that had been fairly one-sided, the Gators’ three-touchdown lead had dwindled to just seven points when the Baker junior lined up to punt with just 2:32 left in Friday’s 35-21 Region 1-1A semifinal victory against upstart Graceville. After calling a timeout, Baker (10-1 overall) was content to punt and play defense, but fate seemingly had other plans.
The deep snap came out low and to the right, skidding across the slick, muddy turf of Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium, but Brunson managed to get atop it and get off a short, swift kick before the Tiger defense was one him. The ball tumbled end over end maybe 15 yards to the left boundary where a Graceville player tried to get underneath it.
But junior safety Jesse Jordan could.
"I just filled my lane and I looked back and I see the punt was wide left," Jordan said. "It goes through his legs. I see it bounce it, and I just jump on it."
The Baker faithful went wild. So did Joe Brunson.
"I was nervous ’cause I kicked like that and I was about to run over to the sideline if they did something good, and my dad was gonna be like, ‘Good God, man,’" Joe Brunson said. "But when he did that, I was jumping."
The recovery gave the Gators the ball at Graceville’s 28. Three plays later, junior Seth Baksa was in the end zone, rumbling up the middle for a 5-yard score that delivered Baker the 14-point victory.
Jordan’s punt recovery was "huge," Baker coach Matt Brunson said, one of four massive plays the Gator special teams unit supplied Friday.
Two came early.
Baker forced the Tigers (8-4) into three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, and senior Devin Jordan recovered a shanked punt, returning it Graceville’s 16 to set up Joe Brunson for his first of three rushing touchdowns.
Then, after a second Graceville drive stalled out, Joe Brunson caught a few blocks, reversed field and raced 89 yards to the house on a punt return for a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.
"Running up the sideline, Jesse Jordan, Devin (Jordan), Seth (Baksa), they were all leading me down the sideline," Joe Brunson said. "I just saw daylight and kept running."
Finally, Devin Jordan made his presence felt again midway through the third quarter, exploding off the left side of the line to block a Graceville punt, recover it and race down to the 15. This time it took four plays, but the Gators still made use of the field position, Joe Brunson securing his third rushing score and a 28-7 lead on a 1-yard dive.
Graceville managed two fourth-quarter touchdowns, freshman quarterback Neal Adams connecting with Daquayvious Sorey and Xavian Sorey on scoring strikes of 4 and 25 yards, respectively, but the Gators clamped down and held on, their momentum too great to overcome.
"Coach (Barry) Gardner and Graceville have done a great job," Matt Brunson said. "They’re very athletic, and I knew it was gonna be a battle. Our guys kinda traded scores there in the second half and ended up getting a turnover in a punting situation.
"I think the blocked punt by Devin Jordan and the punt recovery there at the end were two huge plays in the game, swinging the momentum for sure."
STAT OF THE NIGHT: 3.6
Graceville running back Jeremiah Castro is the undeniable focal point of the Tigers’ offense. He entered Friday’s game averaging 149.2 yards per game and 8.1 yards per carry.
Castro got his yards Friday, finishing with 125 and a touchdown, but Baker’s defense — two weeks removed from surrendering a season-high 33 points to Blountstown in the SSAC North Florida championship — held him to just 3.6 yards per carry, the senior seemingly running into a brick wall 35 times over.
"He’s a tough little guy," Matt Brunson said. "He’s a competitor.
"I think our defense played really well because that was the set Blountstown was running out of. Some of the exact same plays. We did a lot better job defensively tonight than we did in Panama City, so I was proud of that."
Adding insult to injury, the Gator secondary held Neal to just 5 of 16 passing for 85 yards, contesting most catches.
OFFENSIVE MVP: Joe Brunson, Baker
Just to recap, G(ator).I. Joe scored four times Friday and racked up 231 all-purpose yards against a defense that was allowing just 10.1 points per game.
For the season, he’s up to 2,142 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns.
And, of course, a game-winning punt.
"It was a great team win," he said. "They started coming back and we battled back and scored again.
"And that punt thing. That was meant. I meant to do that. Just letting you know."
DEFENSIVE MVP: Devin Jordan, Baker
The award probably could have gone to any number of Gator defenders, but Jordan stood out, recording one punt block, two punt recoveries and two tackles for loss.
With their lead shrinking late, the Gators never panicked. In fact, they might even prefer it that way.
"I think whenever teams start getting close to us, we come together a lot more," Joe Brunson said. "I think we play better whenever it’s a close game."
His father concurs.
"I think with our guys, the work we put in in the offseason and how hard we grind, we believe if we can keep it within a score in the fourth quarter that we’re gonna win the game," Matt Brunson said. "That’s kinda the way this group believes, and they showed that by how hard they played tonight in the fourth quarter."
Advancing to the Region 1-1A final, Baker is just one win away from a fifth straight Final Four appearance. Standing in the Gators’ way is Vernon (8-3), which beat Northview 43-18 on Friday to punch its own ticket.
The two squads will face off at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium.
"We gotta stop (running back) K’Wan Powell, and we gotta cover ’em enough and get pressure on the quarterback to be successful," Matt Brunson said. "It’s gonna be a war. Defensively, they’re very similar to these guys tonight.
"We just gotta keep battling, have another great week and, hopefully, extend this thing again. We would love to be playing on Thanksgiving."