Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

October 10, 2012

Baker takes top honor

RICHLANDS, Va. — It wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s one that Gray Baker is happy with. Apparently so is the Richlands football team.

“He is just a pleasure, he is a student of the game,” Richlands head football coach Greg Mance said. “He is the last one to leave, (has) just a great attitude and is just a great kid to have on your team and I am just thankful he is down here at Richlands.”

Baker played for Graham last season, but decided last summer to transfer to Richlands for a chance to play football — and baseball — for the Blue Tornado.

“I am settled in, this is my home now, and I love it,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t change it if I could.”

He heard the naysayers who didn’t think the 6-foot-2, 175-pound junior could play the most important position on the field at Richlands.

So much for them. Baker threw for 282 yards and a touchdown in Richlands’ 24-14 win over Marion last Friday, earning the Pocahontas Coal Association/Bluefield Daily Telegraph Player of the Week.

“It is an honor,” Baker said. “A lot of people doubted me when I tried to come and play quarterback and said I couldn’t do it, but I think I have proved myself over the past few games and it has been a great experience.”

Baker, who shared quarterback duties last year with Spencer Sheets at Graham, was doing the same at the start of the season in Richlands, but Ben Brown got hurt and Baker suddenly had the position.

“I feel like I have stepped up when I needed to,” Baker said. “It hurt not having Ben, but I feel like I did what I could do.”

He’s done fine. Baker has completed 58 percent (88-153) of his pass attempts for 1,392 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has also run for 108 yards and two more scores.

“You look at his stats and it is just amazing, he is...just off to a great start,” Mance said.

Baker has played just seven games for the 6-1 Blue Tornado and has two of the three highest single game passing marks in school history. He threw for 341 yards at Pulaski County and 282 against the Scarlet Hurricane.

Steve Dye has the all-time mark of 385 set in 1994 against Lee.  

“I didn’t realize that,” said Baker, who admits he didn’t expect to throw the ball as much as he has. “Not at all, but I just thank the coaches for teaching me what they have and giving me the opportunity to do what I have done and I just owe that to them.”

He also has a talented receiving corps, led by A.J. Johnson, who has caught 12 of Baker’s touchdowns, along with Todd McGlothlin. That duo combined to catch 16 passes for 213 yards against Marion. Colton Staten did the job on the ground, running for 103 yards and two scores.

“A.J. is one of those guys you can throw a screen pass and it turns out to be a 60-yard touchdown, it is great throwing to a guy like him,” Baker said. “It is really a blessing to have him and Todd, everybody will do what they have to do, but A.J. is one of a kind, I like throwing to A.J.”

Baker arrived at Richlands last summer, and immediately dove into the offseason workouts, taking part in 7-on-7s and learning to understand keys and reads after having played in a different system at Graham.

Mance calls him a ‘pleasant surprise’, and has enjoyed watching Baker grow into a ‘tremendous quarterback’ who now takes charge of games.

“He is just doing a great job of getting the ball where it is supposed to go,” Mance said. “The quarterback of our team has got to be a coach. He has been an outstanding leader, he has brought leadership to the team and he has brought just a great teammate...”

He has worked closely with quarterbacks coach Thad Wells, who was a standout at the same position for the Blues as well.

“It has been a great experience, I have learned more than I ever thought I would learn being a quarterback,” Baker said. “It has been a great process and I have come a long way since the first game of the year.  

“I have got more comfortable with audibles and checks and I am starting to read the defense better as each game goes on and I am starting to get a pretty good hang of it.”

It shows. Baker led Richlands last week against Marion, throwing for 282 yards on 18-of-37 attempts with a touchdown to Gabe Hunsaker. The Blue Tornado built a 24-7 halftime lead, and then admittedly struggled offensively after the break.

“The first half, the numbers looked good, but we could have played a whole lot better,” Baker said. “We played pretty sloppy, if we had executed a little better those numbers could have been a lot higher than what they were.

“I thought I had 150 (yards) maybe, I had no idea I had that many. We had chances to really step our game up and we didn’t do too good and Coach Mance was disappointed, but a win is a win.”

While Baker said the offensive line endured the ‘hardest practice of the year’ on Monday, he’s been held out with an injury to his right knee. He will have an MRI today and could be replaced by Brown, who is still ailing himself with back issues, on Friday against Carroll County.

“I think it is my meniscus, but I guess I will see what the future holds tomorrow.” Baker said. “It is right knee, I will get to play again, but I just don’t know the extreme of it.”

There is plenty of football left to play for Richlands, which is seeking its ninth straight Southwest District championship. That is just one goal for a squad with lots of goals, and Baker is excited to be along for the ride.

“Our goal ultimately is a state championship, but first we have to go through districts which we think we can do and then regions,” said Baker, who spoke of the difference in the programs at Richlands and Graham.

“I think it is just the work ethic, everybody here knows we can win the state and that is all we have talked about is playing in late December, that is all the coaches’ goals,” said Baker, who threw for 137 yards and four scores in a win over Graham. “The coaches believe in us which is great, Coach Mance and all of them do a great job of getting us ready.”

It also helps to have the avid support of the Blue Tornado Nation, which gathers by the thousands on Friday nights in the fall at Ernie Hicks Stadium. He wants to return that allegiance with a trip to Lynchburg and the Division 3 state title game.

“It is great, it is a great tradition, nobody really knows until you are part of it, but I love it, it is a great experience,” Baker said. “I just want to be the best I can be and hopefully lead my team to Dec. 8.”

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