MACCLENNY – As the clock expired on Friday night at MacClenny’s Memorial Stadium in the Region 2A final, Clay High football head coach Josh Hoekstra, couldn’t help but think about how special this senior class is to him and the Blue Devil program. The Blue Devils were about to be ousted by the Baker County High Wildcats 29-14 in the region 2-5A championship game Friday night in Macclenny. The win would be Baker County’s first region title and the team’s first venture into the Final Four of the Class 5A playoffs. For Clay, the loss ends a trend of Final Fours that included two state semifinal matches and a Class 5A runnerup finish dating back to 2013.
“This group of seniors was the most fun to be around,” Hoekstra said, who finishes at 9-4. “They had a tremendous work ethic all year and I will miss them for sure.”
The Blue Devils were unable to capitalize on an early turnover, field position, and special teams while Baker County (12-1) advances to next week’s final and at West Florida (Pensacola). West Florida defeated Trinity Christian 24-14 to knock the five-time Class 3A champions out of the the 5A playoff picture.
On their first offensive series, the Blue Devils jumped out to a 7-0 lead when running back Aundre Carter barreled in from five yards out with 6:57 left in the opening quarter. Carter’s score was set up on a fumble recovery by safety Zachary Alvarado on Baker County’s opening drive.
On the ensuing possession, Clay’s defensive back Jordan Copeland made an acrobatic interception going up and taking the ball away from a Wildcat receiver on the Clay 47 yard line with 4:27 left in the quarter. The Blue Devils were unable to capitalize on that turnover because of two consecutive holding penalties.
“That really hurt us because I felt if we could have scored on that possession it would have changed momentum in our favor,” reflected Hoekstra. “Not only did we not score but we gave the ball back to them near midfield.
Four plays later Baker County running back Seth Paige (153 yards) rambled 51 yards untouched on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game at 7-7.
After Clay went three-and-out on its next series, Baker County went on to score on a 25 yard run by Lee Graham (91 yards rushing) to move out to a 13-7 lead with 7:10 left in the half.
On the Blue Devils next possession, they decided to go for it on a fourth and one at their own 34 yard line but Carter was stuffed by Baker County’s Myles Morrison and Cooper Hodges. Four plays later Graham scored on a 29 yard burst to give his team a 19-7 lead with 2:38 left in the half. Baker County went for two but their run attempt failed.
“That was a big point in the game,” said Hoekstra. “We probably should have called time out and punted that ball because they didn’t jump off sides. We should have played the field position game.”
Clay did cut the lead to 19-14 on a 21 yard pass play from quarterback Caleb Eason to wide receiver Ajay Belanger with 1:39 left in the half. Carter, who rushed for a game-high 135 yards on 23 carries, rambled 41 yards to set up that scoring pass. Baker Country added a 38 yard field goal as time expired to grab a 22-14 lead at half.
Baker County opened the second half with kick returner Braeden Sanders carrying the second half kick-off 58 yards down to the Clay eight yard line setting up Paige’s one-yard TD run to give the Wildcats a 29-14 lead.
“We thought we could cover the kick but we missed a tackle,” said Hoekstra. “That kind of deflated us for sure.”
Clay’s defense played exceptional the remainder of the game holding Baker Country out of the end zone. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t muster up any more points and turned the ball over on interceptions on its last two possessions of the game.
“We had a great season,” said Hoekstra, whose team has been in the playoffs for five straight seasons. “We are one of the best public school programs in North Florida.”