What’s the first clue that Baker County is in celebration mode three weeks before Christmas?
“There’s signs all over the hallways, all over the fences,” Baker County head football coach Jamie Rodgers said. “Every time people see somebody [on the team] in the halls, they’re always coming up to them, wishing them good luck.”
Or maybe it’s the response from the high school’s graduates.
“It’s something we’ve never felt, ever,” running back Seth Paige said. “All the old football players we used to look up to, they’re coming to us now and cheering us on.”
Or the buzz from Macclenny to the fringe of the Osceola National Forest.
“The atmosphere is insane,” blocking back Cooper Hodges said. “We’re not that big of a town, and everybody’s behind us.”
After 72 years of football, the Wildcats have finally charged into their first-ever state football title game, Friday’s Class 5A championship against Plantation American Heritage at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
The 2017 Wildcats made it there with a blueprint that looks like something straight out of 1945, the school’s first year on the gridiron.
Paige is the workhorse.
John Green is the two-way threat.
Lee Graham is the wild card.
Hodges is the wrecking ball.
Running all the time was supposed to win championships in 1945, not in 2017. But nobody told Baker County.
“We’ve gotten really good at running the ball and just doing what we do,” Hodges said.
Baker County defeated Clay in the Region 1-5A final without completing a single pass and haven’t scored through the air since Green threw three completions - all of them touchdowns - in the Nov. 10 regional quarterfinal win over Nature Coast Tech.
When a team scores seven rushing touchdowns in a state semifinal, the way the Wildcats buried Pensacola West Florida last week, it doesn’t really matter where the points came from. A 48-point night speaks for itself.
But it didn’t take shape all at once.
Back when the Wildcats lost quarterback Noah Carter in the second week, after they had already dropped their opener to St. Augustine, the season looked like it might veer in a different direction.
“We were kind of looking around going, ‘Now what?’” Rodgers recalled.
What happened next was a triple dash of ingenuity that Rodgers credits to offensive coordinator Josh Jacobson, who has worked alongside him since his days at Suwannee.
Green, moved to the quarterback position once occupied by older brother Joe Green, even though he didn’t play there in fall camp.
Graham, a two-way player as cornerback and receiver on the outside, added snaps in a new Wildcat package that showcased his elusiveness.
And the 290-pound Hodges learned an all-new position, converting from the line to the backfield as a locomotive-grade lead blocker for all of them.
“Instead of bullying people up front, you’ve got to be more athletic [in the backfield], being able to move a little more,” Hodges said.
All that supplemented the steady carries of the durable and determined Paige, who’s been getting more and more carries as the year has gone on and is described by Rodgers as “the most dynamic back on the First Coast.”
“He said, ‘Coach, 25 or 30 [carries], just give it to me,’” Rodgers said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”
That’s what they’ve done over and over behind an offensive line of Tyler Burnsed, Kyle Griffis, Tallon Dugger, Ace Crews and Matthew McDuffie, plus an extra lineman in Myles Morrison who also rotates into the action.
“It’s real special to run behind those big bodies,” Paige said. “You just know the hole is going to open up somewhere.”
Even massive blocking back Hodges, who doubles as a lineman, joined the scoring party last week by plunging into the end zone on the goal-line package.
“It’s always a big man’s dream to get that touchdown,” he said.
They’ll face their biggest challenge yet against Plantation American Heritage, which stands third in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 national rankings and owns three of the last four state titles.
One thing is for sure: Heritage’s traditional strength in the secondary - this year, it includes cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr., among the most coveted recruits in America - counts for a whole lot less against Baker County’s ground game.
“I don’t think American Heritage has ever had to play a team that plays our kind of ball,” Hodges said.
Over the decades, Baker County has enjoyed most of its state-level success in weightlifting, although there are several other championships like a softball championship in 2015 and a Class B boys basketball title in 1966.
Bring home a football trophy from Orlando, and the Wildcats will turn the Baker County buzz a couple of notches off the charts.
“It’s amped up to a whole new level,” Rodgers said. “You’re talking about a bunch of kids doing things that have never been done before.”