An injury to the starting quarterback forced Carlisle’s Gunner Baker into the lineup about midway through the 2009 season.
Never a quarterback before then, the freshman was told to simply manage the offense and let his senior-laden teammates decide the games. Don’t be the cause for any losses, his orders spelled out — no doubt a tricky assignment for someone about to go into battle with powers Alto and Cayuga, winners of three state titles in recent years.
“I was just really nervous the first game, because it was against Alto and they had already won the state championship two years in a row,” Gunner said Wednesday. “But I knew it would help my team, so I went in and did it and tried the best I could. They told me to not try to be a hero or anything, but try to get the ball to the seniors and more experienced guys.”
Now a junior, Gunner has had almost two complete seasons of grooming behind center and is producing alongside the best of them — not to mention has become a team leader. That’s helped Carlisle to records of 7-0 overall and 2-0 in District 9-1A Division I entering this week’s showdown with Big Sandy (5-2, 2-0).
“He has a lot more confidence,” said Carlisle head coach Rocky Baker, Gunner’s dad. “He had always said his freshman year that he had never thrown the football and was a lot more excited about the defensive side. He just kind of grew his sophomore year.”
Gunner, an all-state player on the baseball diamond, was a backup running back and a starting defensive back during the first five games of his freshman season. But starting quarterback Dillon Heim went down with a season-ending injury, leaving the Indians without a quarterback heading into a stretch of difficult matchups.
Early in the week of the Alto game, Carlisle offensive coordinator Jamie Skelton approached coach Baker about giving Gunner the reins of the offense, an idea that met rejection at first. By midweek and with no one else to fill the vacancy, though, Gunner was taking all the snaps and getting the Indians ready for Alto.
“It had never crossed our mind,” coach Baker said. “But our offensive coordinator came in and said let’s give him a shot. He said he’s smart and he knows everything about the offense. He kept pushing and pushing and I finally said we would give him a shot.”
Having managed the games well and continued to understand his complementary role, Gunner helped the Indians beat Grapeland in the final game of the regular season to earn a playoff berth. That performance was a precursor to the events of the past two seasons, which included a 9-2 finish in 2010 and an opportunity for an unbeaten regular season in 2011.
Credit can be given to Carlisle’s winning ways in baseball as well, because the Indians’ trip to the regional finals last spring forced Gunner to miss select baseball and focus on football during the summer. Having played summer baseball every year since elementary school, Gunner spent an entire month in the weight room and working with a quarterbacks coach.
“I was on the football field the whole summer trying to get my footwork and vision better,” Gunner said. “It helped a whole lot. If feels way different than last year.”
Said coach Baker: “He did quarterback lessons two or three times a week and that made a huge difference for him. He’d played select ball ever since he was nine years old. This summer was the first time he had not played any baseball since he was seven.”
No doubt, this season’s results reflect the extra time on the football field. On the season, Gunner has completed 36 of 57 passes for 843 yards and 10 touchdowns, plus has carried the ball 81 times for 1,169 yards and 14 scores.
One of his most electrifying games came in last week’s 42-13 win against Simms Bowie, during which Gunner ran for 198 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 213 yards and two TDs and returned a kickoff 85 yards for another score.
In the meantime, the starting free safety has registered 25 tackles and an interception for one of the area’s stingiest stop units. His contributions on both sides have helped the Indians outscore opponents 54-4 a game.
Gunner, the quarterback, is the most important player on the team.
“He has a lot more knowledge of what we’re going to do,” coach Baker said. “He’s able to change things at the line of scrimmage, which helps us. It makes it a lot easier to do it when he knows exactly what coach Skelton wants to do.”
Said Gunner: “There are more people depending on me at quarterback but our team works well together, so there’s not that much more pressure.”