“We sat around and talked for about an hour about what happened Friday,” he said. “As a coach, you’re looked at as a mentor because kids can relate to you, and you can talk to them about things. So, I opened up the floor for questions, and we talked about what happened, the situation. The gunshots. How did that make you feel? They’re trying to play football, probably the biggest game we’ve played this year. Big crowd, big game, and they feel their opportunity was spoiled over senseless gun violence. It had nothing to do with them. This was their time to show what they could do, and it was taken away from them and there’s nothing they can do about it. They were put in danger, their families were put in danger, and (the shooters) took away something that we love to do. For what?”
Baker said the Wildcats had opened the second half recovering a Thomson turnover and were driving the field when the gunshots erupted. Two suspects were arrested in connection with the shootings, according to WRDW.
“I heard 3-4 shots then the sound of a much larger gun going off,” Baker said. “At that time, I’m not going to say that chaos commenced, but it was a crazy time for the next 10-15 minutes, which seemed like hours. We were trying to get the players to safety, and the students into the building. We had to get everyone calmed down. Everyone was screaming, worried about their families, things of that nature. It was real close to panic mode.”
Baker takes pride for how his staff and the staffs of the band and cheerleaders handled the situation and guided their respective teams to safety.
“To say we took control is a big thing,” he said. “You see these situations happening in other places, and in the back of your mind you say it won’t happen here. But that’s not always true. When it happens, how you respond is very important. When you’re in that situation, you have to be prepared mentally. It’s hard to evacuate during the middle of a football game. It’s hard to practice that, but that’s the times we’re living in and it’s a shame to say that.”
On a lighter note, the Wildcats find humor in footage that emerged of Baker running during the evacuation.
“They had a good laugh at that,” he said. “It broke the ice, and I didn’t want to skip over it because these things happen. Gun violence within our city, within our country. It happens. I tried to tell them that ...You have to be strong, and it’s about living in the moment.”
The Thomson game won’t be resolved for three more weeks. Both teams will use their bye to complete the game. The Wildcats will shift their focus to 2 p.m. Saturday, when they’ll host Butler (2-2, 0-1 Region 4) for homecoming.
“We’re hungry to get back to work,” Baker said. “Back to what you would call normal. Wake up every morning, go to school, work, practice, then game day, on the field, doing what we love to do. What we were put on this earth to do, some would say. Playing the game we love. That’s what our mindset is. We went through this traumatic event, and we’re going to try to put it past us.”
There’s a lot positive to see when looking at the Wildcats’ progress over the past two seasons. After a pedestrian 16-25 record from 2016-19, the Wildcats finished 2020 with a 4-3 region record and had qualified for the playoffs, but were railroaded when the GHSA determined Laney used undue influence over a player transferring into the program. The Wildcats were forced to forfeit the three region wins that player appeared in, which cost them their playoff spot.
Last season, Baker’s first, the Wildcats beat a top five team in each of their first two games with wins over Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County. They finished 6-5 for their first winning season since 2015 and their first playoff appearance since 2016.
Baker said the Wildcats identity and success leans on the physicality of the lines. He said their toughness was tested early on with their non-region schedule, where they went 3-0, and that they’re ready to take on the new-look Region 4. It features five playoff teams from last season: Laney, Putnam County, Thomson, Washington County and Westside.
“It’s a tough region,” Baker said. “It has a lot of tradition and a lot of teams who have won a lot. We’ve got some ranked teams (No. 6 Thomson and No. 7 Putnam County). It’s a well-rounded and competitive region. ...I can’t look any further than the next game, or set goals that are beyond our control. Our team goal is to make a run in the playoffs and hope to get lucky to play for a state championship.”
For more from Baker, listen to Ep. 49 of The Class 2A Blogcast.