Among Friday’s high school football playoff games, Baldwin hosts Baker County in the 2S regional semi-final. The meeting is a rematch of a game won by the Indians 30-7 earlier in the season, ending a 54-year drought against the Wildcats.
This has been a banner year for Baldwin, who won a district championship for the first time in school history. At 9-2, Baldwin’s only losses came against Bradford and Ed White, both playoff teams. Interestingly, both were shutout losses.
Now, Baldwin wants to make more history. With another win over Baker County on Friday, the Indians will advance to the regional finals in football for the first time in school history.
When Baldwin is at their best, quarterback Jalen Hitchens is the catalyst on the offense. He has run for nearly 1,000 yards this season and he leads the team in touchdowns with 13. When he is on his game, the Indians are tough to beat.
“Jalen is a tough kid,” Shields said. “He’s pretty much the offense. As he goes, we go. He’s getting better at throwing the ball. He’s got great arm talent. He’s making better decisions, so he’s definitely carried us this season offensively. There’s no doubt about that.”
This week’s matchup in the post-season is not to be taken lightly. Despite the 30-7 win over Baker County in September, the Wildcats can beat anyone when they have the running game going. Running back Cam Smith has rushed for 1,419 yards this season. He averages over 10 yards per carry and has scored 21 touchdowns as a runner, receiver, and defensive back. He is the key cog in Baker County’s offense.
“He’s dynamic. He’s lightning in a bottle,” Shields said. “He can run, he can catch, he can return. I think he’s playing defense now. He’s a great athlete, there’s no doubt about that. The kid makes plays.”
The success the program has enjoyed this season under Shields has many in the western Duval County community excited.
“Everybody is certainly happy and proud of us,” Shields said. “We go to church for the pregame meal and the community really takes care of us. Everybody just wants us to keep it going. It is really a positive attitude and vibe in the area. Everybody has been really supportive.”
The winner of the Baker County-Baldwin matchup moves on to the regional finals where they will face either Bradford or Gainesville Eastside. If Bradford wins, it would be a rematch for both teams. The Tornados beat Baldwin 35-0 on Sept. 2 and they were leading Baker County 21-0 before inclement weather stopped the game before it was official.
“Bradford is going to probably be there. But the main thing is we got to focus on Baker,” Shields said. “They’re good enough to beat us. We’re good enough to beat them. Bradford beat both of us in the regular season. So, it if that comes to it, we worry about that then. Right now, it’s all hands on deck for Backer County.”